In late October last year, social media was abuzz with the news that nostalgia-brand Woolworths was reopening in 2021. Announced by Twitter account @UKWoolworths, the story was quickly picked up by The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Mail, Metro and the Daily Star, to name a few.
It took one call to the Very Group, Woolies owners, to debunk the jape, but it was too late: the tweet had already reportedly spawned over 6,000 stories.
It turned out that a 17-year old student from York had set the ball rolling as a part of a British brand-loyalty marketing experiment, yet its falsity should have been obvious. The original account was unverified. It initially had a paltry 900 followers. It was littered with spelling mistakes (including, hilariously, ‘Woolsworths’).
Two initial thoughts jump out from this story: the first is that someone needs to hire this kid at the earliest possible opportunity; he is evidently a digital PR prodigy.
The second is a deep concern that the press, our content curators, can be fooled with such ease. The implicit weight given to ‘trusted’ news sources can lead to potentially millions of members of the public being misled with devastating consequences.
It’s a well-worn warning on the ease with which fake news can become mainstream ‘fact.’ While there are many relatively harmless incidents like the Woolworths wheeze, it can spiral into something all the more nefarious.
At 11.31pm last Saturday evening Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Tooting, took to social media to announce that she’d heard rumours that vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi had managed to get him and his family to skip the vaccine queue:
‘I have heard rumours that @nadhimzahawi got him and his family vaccinated in Wandsworth. Nadhim, can you please tell us if it’s true? I really hope it’s not, unless you meet the necessary criteria. There are millions of vulnerable people waiting patiently in the queue.’
She quickly followed up her allegation with a request that her more than 182,000 followers ‘avoid throwing unnecessary attacks at the Minister’ saying that she ‘didn’t know’ if the accusation was true.
But by this point it was too late. Thousands of furious messages were sent to the Minister, helped along by Allin-Khan’s parliamentary colleagues Barbara Keeley, Karl Turner, and Jo Platt retweeting her claim.
At 12.23am she deleted the original messages, apologising for unintentionally instigating a ‘pile on’, but Pandora’s box was already blown wide open.
Just 50 minutes later, Allin-Khan tweeted a retraction, posting: ‘I have deleted my earlier tweets which were inappropriate and wrong. I regret sharing unsubstantiated claims about the Minister and I apologise to him and his family.’
Zahawi graciously accepted the apology, but the damage had been done. While the claim has impacted his professional reputation, more vital is the doubt that Allin-Khan’s tweet, and its consequences, have sown about the Government’s vaccine rollout strategy. At a time when the public is already worried, the drama will, in a minor way, have added nothing to the need for calm, rational national messaging.
Absolute blame is hard to pin down: in the seconds it takes to dash out a tweet, Allin-Khan can be forgiven for not considering the full ramifications of her posts. Yet we should be unapologetic in demanding more care from those in positions of authority. In the frenetic world we live in, many of us simply don’t have time to independently assess the veracity of claims made online – we often trust that those making the claims and presenting the stories do this legwork on our behalf.
That’s where the system falls down. It operates on trust, rather than guarantee or an accepted standard of training. Nobody teaches MPs how to act responsibly on social media, nobody formally demands the same is true of journalists – arguably, in the rush to get the scoop, the opposite is encouraged.
That’s where groups like the UK Safer Internet Centre come in. Championing the creation of a healthier online environment, particularly concerning children’s safety, they are our lead organisation promoting responsible online behaviours.
A key moment in their year is Safer Internet Day which, for 2021, falls next month on 9th February. Recognised by more than 170 countries around the world, it seeks to educate children, young people, parents and professionals about online safety.
In 2019 the Centre asked young people to explore how they ask for, give and receive consent online. In 2020, it looked at how the internet can help us to discover and explore identity. This year, it will be exploring reliability online – and it couldn’t be more topical.
It is vital that we have a meaningful national conversation on how we can individually assess what to trust online. The UKSIC focuses its efforts on encouraging young people to question, challenge and change the online world for the better, but our children cannot do it on their own.
This is something that their parents, journalists, politicians, celebrities and more of us need to actively consider. How do the posts we engage with influence, persuade or manipulate us? Do they have an impact on the decisions, opinions and what we all share online? How can I tell if what I’m reading is true, a version or truth, or a bald-faced lie? If I’m an influencer, what’s my role in all this?
Those in positions of authority have a duty to do their best to be reliable sources of information – which largely comes down to their own digital literacy, and understanding the importance of taking the time to critically evaluate sources before using them.
A joke about Woolworths is relatively harmless, yet the same basic principle of those in positions of influence not checking before they tweet is clear to see. Whilst we should absolutely forgive influencers for making the odd unintentional mistake, the ramifications of those errors can be felt in aggregate across our society.
One incident like Allin-Khan’s might not do much harm in and of itself, but hers was not the first and it will be far from the last. The constant drip drip of fake news, false allegations and doubt-stoking has a terrible impact on trust in expertise and consequently in our civic institutions. We saw last week how that can ultimately play out, with the storming of the Capitol Building fuelled by, among other things, Trump’s social media manipulations.
The saying goes that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. While it’s essential that we educate young people about the reliability of information on the internet, it’s the adult influencers who urgently need to consider their greater responsibility to consciously share reasonable content.