From a tiger roaming Primrose Hill to the London Eye burning, startling reports spread fast on Twitter with the ease of a clickJonathan Richards and Paul Lewis
guardian.co.uk, Wed 7 Dec 2011 15.44 GMTRumour is a pipe blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures, wrote Shakespeare. In the age of Twitter we can now add: and by the ease of clicking “retweet”.Whether it was the tantalising possibility of a tiger padding about in Primrose Hill or army tanks gathering in the City of London, some Britons proved themselves remarkably willing to share all manner of startling reports on Twitter during the August riots, whatever their accuracy. But what is perhaps more interesting is how Twitter was also used to disprove many rumours.“TIGER HAS BEEN LET OUT OF LONDON ZOO AND IS NOW LOOSE IN CAMDEN. NOT JOKING,” wrote one user, embellishing a story that rioters had uncaged some of the animals at London Zoo.“THEY’RE BURNING DOWN LONDON EYE!!!! THIS IS TOO MUCHH!!!!!!!!!!!” screamed another, upon seeing a photograph appearing to show flames licking around the base of the South Bank landmark.The Guardian, together with a team of researchers at the University of Manchester, has analysed seven rumours that emerged during the five-day period of the riots, ranging from the frivolous – that rioters had broken into and started cooking their own food at a McDonald’s – to the more sober: that the riots in Tottenham had started after police beat a 16-year-old girl.Twitter provided a database of 2.6m riot-related tweets to Reading the Riots, an investigation into the summer disorder by the Guardian and London School of Economics. The study found that – contrary to widespread speculation at the time – Twitter was not used by rioters to incite or organise the disturbances.The finding calls into question why so many people, from the prime minister to the acting head of the Metropolitan police, blamed the social networking site for spreading the disorder, even raising the prospect of closing it down at times of crisis.The separate conclusion of analysis into Twitter rumours during the riots – visualised in an interactive on our site – suggests that, despite helping rumours spread at great speed, Twitter has an equal and opposite power to dispel them – often in the space of two or three hours, particularly if the counter-evidence is strong.Visual proof of a story, or lack thereof, plays an important role in the lifespan of a rumour, the researchers found, as does the speed with which it is picked up by the mainstream media. In many cases, photographic evidence – even if doctored, or indeed even if of a completely separate event – made believers of many tweeters.In the early hours of Tuesday 9 August, one user tweeted a link to a compelling image of the London Eye apparently ablaze, with the message: “Oh my god! This can’t happening!” Barely half an hour later someone else pointed out that, “being made of iron”, it was hard to imagine the Eye being flammable, yet still the image was being forwarded on some three hours and 700 tweets later – long after a splinter discussion had begun about the perils of Photoshop. (The London Eye is in fact made of steel.)Equally credulous were those who, on the Monday evening, circulated reports that rioters had broken into London Zoo – thanks largely to a single, poorly-lit picture of what appears to be a tiger on a stairwell, with the irresistible subject line: “Oh my god – reports of tigers roaming around Primrose Hill.”A Twitter user with a good memory spotted similarities between the picture in question and shots taken of a big cat that had escaped from a circus in Italy in 2008 – and even linked to a news article about the earlier incident – but not before nearly 1,000 people had retweeted the story. With some rumours, certain key tweets proved influential.At around 8pm on the Monday, as reports began to circulate of youths “moving towards” Birmingham children’s hospital, many tweets struck a note of outrage. (“Setting a children’s hospital alight is hitting the all time low. Scum.“)Yet with one stinging insight barely an hour later – “May I remind clueless/hysterical #birminghamriots commentators that Children’s Hospital sits face-face with city’s central police station” – a lone Twitter user was able to put the rumour to rest almost as quickly as it had begun.Another story that proved too good not to share was of rioters breaking into a branch of McDonald’s and cooking their own food. The rumour, which began at 2am on the Sunday evening, was helped in no small measure by a Daily Mail story whose headline blared: “Youths storm McDonald’s and start cooking their own food,” and which was the most widely shared link among tweets which spread the rumour.No evidence was forthcoming, however, and today the Mail’s online story says only: “There were also reports that youths had stormed McDonald’s and had started frying their own burgers.”“The [collection] of tweets shows that the mainstream media is perfectly capable of picking up juicy unverified information from social media and, without adhering to the usual standard of fact checking, running with a story that is in the end not verified, but goes unchallenged,” said Dr Farida Vis, lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester.Fortunately the media did not fall for the story that the army had begun assembling tanks at Bank, which did have an accompanying photograph, but which, it was later pointed out, was a picture of some tanks in Egypt.From a collection of more than 2.6m tweets sent during the course of the riots, the research team picked a subset of more than 10,000 concerning seven key rumours to emerge during the riots. Five turned out to be untrue; one, of police beating a 16-year-old girl, remained unsubstantiated and police say they have no evidence such an event occurred; and another, of a fire being lit at a Miss Selfridge store in Manchester, was confirmed.