Yesterday, in the real world, a Qantas A380 landed safely in Singapore. On Twitter word spread it had exploded and crashed — while distracted by the dog s-x.
The first tweet about a plane crash, at least in English, came from Jakarta at 13:46 AEDT. Ronald Simatupang tweeted under his handle ‘onathasoygeboy’: “I’m updating @metrotv breaking news. Hopefully it wasn’t an airplane crash in hang Nadin airport @batam. Please God… :-(”
He meant @Metro_TV, the Twitter account of Indonesia’s first 24-hour news channel. It was reporting that an explosion had been heard above Indonesia’s Batam Island, just 20km off Singapore, where Hang Nadin is the local airport. Debris had fallen to the ground.
One minute later Jessica Tsang tweeted: “Airplane crash/xplode at batam, Indonesia~!! Watch news for more info~!!”
In just minutes, the sound of an explosion had subtly but powerfully morphed into an exploding aircraft. Unspecified debris became a crashed aircraft. Speculation began that it was a Qantas aircraft. Certainly at an altitude of 4000 feet it would’ve been visible from the ground, and soon enough people saw the logo on the debris.
Mainstream news outlets were initially cautious with their wording. At 14:03 Lisa Farrell, a producer at CBS News in New York, tweeted: “Police chief in western Indonesia tells TVOne debris from a plane found on Batam island. AP.”
At 14:06 @FreshJakarta, “a fresh info sender and breaking news forwarder”, tweeted: “Explosion heard in Batam. The local police still investigate the crash sites in Batam Center.” By 14:10 @breakingnews has “Singapore-bound jetliner reportedly crashes in Indonesia” and @foxheadlines has “WORLD: Plane Crash Reported in Western Indonesia”.
Then things go ballistic.
As people summarise official statements and add their own commentary, the message keeps evolving. A wavefront of misinformation expands like a bubble, the facts trailling well behind.
My personal favourite is from Chris Samuel: “Reuters says #Qantas has confirmed one of their #Airbus #A380’s has crashed over Indonesia.” Which is precisely the opposite of what Qantas had confirmed. No reflection upon Mr Samuel — he read what he thought he read.
“Conflicting info (eg Qantas A380) isn’t that unusual in my experience. Used to be confined to & sorted in newsroom. Twitter’s changed that,” tweeted ABC journalist Helen Tzarimas.
I think that’s slightly wrong. People have always passed on news for themselves — ‘have you heard?’ — long before industrial newsrooms and their fact-checking relegated everyone else’s news to ‘gossip’. That’s human nature. There’s social status to be gained by having the best information.
Twitter merely provides a medium for meth-fuelled Chinese whispers — one that can inflate that bubble of misinformation faster than industrial-age media’s processes. Or, indeed, a bubble of completely accurate information, such as where one can find a photograph of a footballer apparently being fellated by a dog.
Stories about Canberra Raiders star Joel Monaghan’s adventures broke into the mainstream media around lunchtime yesterday. Needless to say, none of them published the photo in question.
At 18:25 AEDT I tweeted: “So has anyone actually seen this alleged photo of the alleged rugby player in the alleged ‘s-xual activity’ with the alleged dog?” Within five minutes I’d been told of five different places to see it for myself.
Ah, gotta love Twitter. I think.
*Thanks to @franksting for his legwork with Google updates