As Mark Twain once said, a lie can be half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or was it Winston Churchill, or James Callaghan, or Terry Pratchett? The internet is undecided. It seems likely that all of the above were paraphrasing an old proverb – but, depending on where you search and who you ask, you can more-or-less pick your own truth.
When it comes to current affairs, the power of digital falsehood can count for a great deal. Earlier this month, a false message posted by hackers to the Twitter account of the Associated Press – which read “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured” – temporarily wiped 150 points off the Dow Jones index, and led to an FBI investigation.
In the appalled aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, rumours and conspiracies were almost impossible to avoid, ranging from allegations against an innocent Saudi witness to a digitally manipulated hoax clip from the cartoon series Family Guy.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing online untruth of recent weeks – and the most telling indictment of rapid-reaction social media habits – was not a tweet or an attribution, but an entire person: Santiago Swallow.