Douglas Adams said that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, apart from bad news, which follows its own rules. I can’t think of a better example of this than last week, when our local police force here in sleepy Dorset became a trending topic worldwide on Twitter, after a story broke that they had closed all the county’s petrol stations in response to the chaos caused by motorists panic-buying fuel.
The story turned out to be a mixture of half-truth, exaggeration and rumour, as the police had in fact decided to temporarily close a few individual petrol stations to ease congestion – obviously quite different from ordering a complete lockdown of the entire county’s fuel supply, which was the story being shared on Twitter.
Regardless of the truth of the story, within a few hours of the first tweet, there had been a staggering two thousand mentions of Dorset Police on Twitter.
The rumour appears to have begun when Dorset Police put a fairly innocuous statement up on their website, which was then tweeted on their official Twitter account (@dorsetpolice) at 11.39am. It advised locals not to panic buy, and announced that a few stations would close temporarily until serious traffic hold-ups had cleared.
The rumour that ‘all petrol stations are closed’ in Dorset first appeared on Twitter at 12.49pm with a tweet posted by @IanAitch, which was followed by a couple more tweets by other users with the same rumour.
A minute later, it really started to gain momentum when @skynewsbreak tweeted it to its more than half a million followers.
This provoked a flurry of incredulous tweets from users, convinced that the police were now systematically shutting down all the county’s petrol pumps.
The Sky News tweet received over 50 retweets within the next 5 minutes, by which point other major mainstream media outlets started to repeat the story, including @itvnews.
Ten minutes later, a few tweets started to appear which questioned or refuted the Sky News tweet and the dominant narrative that Dorset’s pumps were now all closed. Among them were @bournemouthecho and @mathewchampion, who linked back to the original Dorset police statement and pointed out the limited scale of closures.
Unfortunately these disparate voices of reason were lost in the crowd, as the rumour of blanket closures across the whole county spread like wildfire, soon appearing as a lead story in the online editions of several major newspapers including the Guardian.
By 1.05pm, ‘Dorset Police’ was the top trending topic in the UK. By 1.10pm, it was trending worldwide. By mid-afternoon, several hours and thousands of tweets later, the ‘all petrol pumps closed’ story was still being passed around Twitter, despite plenty of information out there to the contrary.
This episode shows the incredible speed at which rumours can be spread on Twitter, and just how hard those rumours can be to dispel, especially when they are disseminated by trusted news sources. This particular story may never have been picked up had it not been for Sky News, which appears to have been eager to jump on a juicy headline without being too worried about checking the facts of the story.
Here we see the advantages of modern police forces and other large public bodies developing a proactive social media policy to react to unexpected crises such as this. A swift and unequivocal response from Dorset Police on Twitter as soon as these inaccurate reports started appearing could have helped significantly to set the facts of the incident straight (although even this may not have been enough, given how quickly the story ballooned on Twitter).
And as we have already seen, there were actually people on Twitter who did try to correct the inaccuracies of the story, but the problem was they simply weren’t being listened to. It shows that ultimately, Twitter is a hierarchy based on ‘influence’, and it is unquestionably those users with the biggest ‘influence’ that rule the Twitter roost.