The Dangers of Unconfirmed Rumors on Twitter
On June 13, 2012, the Indonesian Twittersphere was rattled by a shocking news that an unknown local football player had been signed by Spanish giant, Real Madrid. The starlet, Sugimin Hidayatullah, reportedly drew the attention of Jose Mourinho and his agent, Jorge Mendes, after he impressed scouts who watched him playing in a match in downtown Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi.
The array of Sugimin’s extraordinary football skills include the lightning pace to beat opposing fullbacks and superb footwork to dribble the ball – the wonderful skills he said to acquire for continuously playing Indonesian traditional game, “taplak,” since he was a little kid. No wonder Madrid didn’t wait much longer to sign the most exciting Indonesian football prospect.
Such remarkable rumor triggered the massive enthusiasm of the success-deprived Indonesian football fans all over Twitter. Tweets containing the name Sugimin and his Cinderella story were retweeted by Twitter users and the rumor went viral. The talk about Sugimin decorated the virtual conversations that day from social media to Internet message boards. Sugimin was the highlight of the day.
The rumor, of course, turned out to be not true because the brouhaha of Sugimin was something I accidentally created earlier that day. The Madrid manager, Jose Mourinho, came to visit Jakarta that day and he was accompanied by Jorge Mendes, the agent who disastrously brought the unknown Portuguese youth, Bebe, to Manchester United. The transfer is said to be one of the worst transfers United has ever done, but Mendes pocketed one-third of the transfer money as agent fee. Based on the sentiment I had towards Mendes, the sarcastic side of me posted a tweet that read:
“Future Headline: Young Indonesian Starlet, Sugimin Hidayatulah, signed by Real Madrid for 7 mil Euro thanks to super agent Jorge Mendes.”
I didn’t have any intention to create a hoax. Technically, it’s not even a hoax if it comes with a disclaimer – in this case, “Future Headline.” Some friends who know my love for satire and sarcasm retweeted that tweet as a gag. Their followers – who might be unfamiliar with my tendency – didn’t get the Mendes and unknown player-transfer reference and, crucially, ignored the “Future Headline” disclaimer. The countless retweets from third- and fourth-degree party, who didn’t even know me and realize the news was actually meant to be a gag, caused a snowball effect. The social media company, Saling Silang, listed that Sugimin Hidayatullah is one of the most talked about topic on Twitter that day.
I didn’t realize how massive the effect was until a radio producer contacted me and tried to clarify the news. A female friend who didn’t even like football also asked the same thing. Later that day, I was in a meeting when one of the participants told me how he and his colleagues had been involved in fiery BlackBerry group discussion about the truth. His expression when I told him that the rumor was originated from my tweet was priceless.
Realizing what was happening, I tried to extinguish the fire by publishing a mock press release about Sugimin on a newly-created blog. I tried to sound as silly as possible to make people realize. I wrote some unrealistic comic book stuff like “Sugimin is able to dribble past 5 defenders with a shuffle dance and celebrate with Mick Jagger” and “The transfer was done after Mourinho received a whisper from Divine Entity.” To my surprise, some people still bought it as the truth. They thought the mock press release was real without realizing that it was the only entry on the site that was hosted on WordPress.
The gags and hilarity caused by Sugimin are astonishing. I still laugh every time I remember the fun I had that day. But on the other side, how some people perceived some unconfirmed rumors as news and truth is tremendously scary. They didn’t even bother to do some self-validation or double-check the news, let alone using common sense on how unlikely the rumor could happen. Even one of the well-respected national publications published an article on its Web site about Sugimin’s unconfirmed move, leaving me baffled on how low the standard of reporting had sunk.
If you’re on Twitter, for the past couple of months you must have been aware of the existence of some Twitter accounts who operate behind anonymity, publishing a series of political rumors which are said to be true. Some of the examples are @triomacan2000 or its predecessor, @benny_israel, among others. These accounts are tweeting unconfirmed rumors, from political scandals to confidential issues and some officers and politicians are openly annoyed by their existence. What they are tweeting might be true, but because of its unconfirmed status, how do we know which one is true and which one is not?
From my Sugimin experience, I realize that some people are not responsible enough to themselves to validate what they just read and consume it as naked truth. I had a deep laugh on Sugimin’s case, it’s purely a mistaken joke went viral, nobody got hurt. But what would happen if there are other designated people, some may be under the anonymity cloak, who constantly spread rumors on Twitter to achieve certain goals? What would happen if what they are publishing is completely not true? There would be nobody to filter them but yourself. That’s why the absence of validating what you just read on Twitter could be really dangerous.