How my Olympics lie lapped the globe

By Mic Wright on August 13th, 2012

“A lie will go around the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

It’s a beautiful quotation and comes with a lovely side order of irony. Because while the aphorism is most often attributed to Mark Twain, he didn’t say it. That’s an untruth. The phrase was coined in that form by C.H. Spurgeon in his modestly titled book Gems from Spurgeon (1859). It comes from a far earlier – and admittedly reasonably similar – remark by Jonathan Swift in The Examiner in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Regardless of its source or phrasing, that idea is repeated often because it is so demonstrably true. In today’s world, it’s even apt for a update: a lie can have lapped the world while the truth is still looking for the Send button. Last night, during the Olympic closing ceremony, I was tweeting jokes about the goings-on and posted this message as a satirical dig about the cluelessness of the NBC commentators during the opening ceremony:

For those who didn’t watch the closing ceremony, actors playing Del and Rodney dressed in the 60s-style Batman and Robin suits they wore in an Only Fools and Horses Christmas special popped up at one point. The quote was entirely made up but once the tweet began to be retweeted and stolen by others who presented it as fact, the thing took on a life of its own. I was seeing Poe’s Law in action.

While plenty of people realised I was joking, a huge number didn’t get that at all and deluged me with comments explaining Only Fools and Horses to me or lambasting the “idiot” at NBC who doesn’t exist. At the time I posted the joke, NBC’s television coverage of the ceremony was over three hours away, but the attention of a number of high-profile Twitter users helped to get the ball rolling.

Caitlin Moran (264,000+ followers) retweeted the joke but clearly realised it was a joke. Others did not. After an Irish Twitter user with 41 followers, @daithigorman, lifted the tweet without attribution and sent it to Father Ted writer and “big man” on Twitter, Graham Linehan (204,000+ followers), it began to be retweeted steadily as fact. Linehan deleted his comment and retweet after several people informed him that it was only a joke.

Meanwhile, another Twitter user, @debsthelawyer, was making hay with the unsourced quote. She tweeted it to her 446 followers and received 3548 retweets bringing the total with my original to 11,275 retweets. That figure doesn’t include people manually copying and pasting the text or tweeting messages like “Apparently NBC compared Del Boy to Robin Hood. #epicfail.” #Epicfail indeed, old son – and not the first time a tweet mentioning Robin Hood has been misunderstood.

The bigger fail was the number of journalists on Twitter who took the phantom NBC commentator’s comedy comment at face value, among them Julian Druker, 5 News Reporter and Presenter, Jeremy Vine of Radio 2 and Mark Chapman, a presenter on 5Live and BBC Sport.

Others included Steve Busfield, Sports Blogs Editor at Guardian America, Jane Merrick, the Independent on Sunday’s Political Editor and Natalie Pirks, an ITV News sports reporter. Even this morning, as I was writing this piece, more hacks were tweeting to their followers asking about the silly NBC anchor.

In a break with tradition, the Daily Mail didn’t pick the tweet up as fact but did repeat it without bothering to say that I was the one who wrote it: “One person joked on Twitter that a NBC Commentator on the Olympics told his American viewers: “That is not actually Batman but a British folk hero known as Del Boy. Sort of like Robin Hood.” Would it hurt to credit sources now and then?

However, this tweet doesn’t matter that much. I realise if you tweet a joke that there will always be people who will nick it without giving you credit. If I have something I want to be attributed to me alone, I’ll publish it in an article or save it for repeated overuse in personal anecdotes. The issue with cases like this, for me, is how they relate to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as places where news is reported.

Much has been made of people such as Andy Carvin who use Twitter as a place to source on-the-ground information on major stories. He received massive plaudits for doing so during the Arab Spring and has built up quite a following. On establishing sources via Twitter, he says:

“I get uncomfortable when people refer to my Twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.”

I get uncomfortable when people like Carvin spout such hogwash. That’s not a newsroom. A newsroom is a space occupied by professionals who are accountable and on whom you can place trust. Twitter is a writhing mass of speculation, unconfirmed sources and repeated opinions; of facts and statements filched from elsewhere. Twitter has its place in getting real-time, eyewitness detail – witness the guy who tweeted the raid on the Bin Laden compound – but it must be handled with care.

The ability to spread rumour and take advantage of the credulousness of Twitter users has not been lost on governments and the security services. Fake accounts purporting to belong to agencies such as the British Special Intelligence Service and the CIA have been discovered on YouTube in the past and it’s widely suggested that those organisations and others run fabricated Twitter and Facebook accounts.

While my little lie about the Olympics closing ceremony won’t hurt anyone – not even the already massively mockable NBC – the way in which it spread yesterday does make me worry. Professional journalists and those who consume the news need to be far less vulnerable to unsourced “fact”. How many supposed truths become solid fact on social networks every day in the way my Del Boy crack did?

My “lie” is still bouncing around on Twitter, repeated by hundreds who haven’t bothered to find out where it originated from. In the race to the bottom, Twitter is way out in the lead. If there’s a moral here, it’s that we must demand more from the professionals whose job it is to sift through digital bilge in search of truth. As for the rest of us? A bit more healthy scepticism wouldn’t go amiss.