What do Henry Kissinger and Bart Simspon have in common?
In this Viewspaper article about Said Gaddafi’s appearance on Libyan State TV, Patterson ponders the likely reaction of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Prince Andrew and divers other great and good who have sucked up to Mad Dog & Son, but then says:
But Henry Kissinger, or at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger, tweeted that Saif Gaddafi was his godson and that he believed him “to be sincere”.
Well, at least she, or perhaps, as FSB suspects, a sharp-eyed sub, hedged the bets somewhat by adding that “at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger”. But once that reasonable doubt is raised, Patterson then goes on mostly ignoring it:
As the speech went on, and Twitter was aflutter with the kind of comments you wouldn’t want to hear about your godson, the ersatz Kissinger’s pride switched to loyalty. “Those,” he said, “saying Saif Gaddafi is under the influence tonight are completely out of order. He had a problem once,” he added, “and dealt with it.”
As FSB rightly notes, the whole three-par reference to “Henry Kissinger” has “the slightest whiff of a last-minute save by the subs.” Indeed, the “at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger” and that “ersatz” sit oddly in the sentences in which they appear. As FSB asks:
“Why else insert two random, not particularly tongue-in-cheek comments from a tongue-in-cheek spoof twitter account into an otherwise serious paragraph on reaction from world leaders?”
That the Henry K twitterer is a spoof is pretty conclusively proved by FSB, though my suspicions were immediately raised in Patterson’s original article by the sentence: “Those,” he said, “saying Saif Gaddafi is under the influence tonight are completely out of order.” (Emphasis mine.)
Now I’ve hopped around the world a bit and I would say the phrase “completely out of order” is a UK English idiom. OK, you do hear it in some Commonwealth countries, but they’re usually the ones where UK imports such as EastEnders and Coronation Street are popular, Al Pacino in the final scene in Scent of a Woman notwithstanding (there, I would argue, it is used in a strictly legalistic sense, rather than the more general way it is in the UK).
It’s not the kind of phrase I would expect to trip lightly off the tongue of a Harvard-educated German-born American Jewish Nobel Peace Prize winner. But I could be wrong, and perhaps he uses the phrase all the time, along with “Leave it owwwwt!” and “You want some, then?!”
But what this whole storm in a Twitter cup highlights is something I alluded to my posting about the Guardian’s live blog on the Christchurch earthquake: irrelevant, baffling tweets that instead of merely being a means of gathering and conveying news (ie, just another journalists’ tool to do their job) become the news itself. Marshall McLuhan eat your tweet out.
Within the 140-letter limit of a tweet, you may have the sparkle of a lead: what you seldom have is the hard gem of actual news. The more excitable tabloids and sleb magazines (as well as the more excitable political commentators working in the hothouse of Westminster – yes, you, Guido) may get all fired up by the more wayward tweets of their particular prime suspects (B-grade movie stars, pop stars you’ve never heard of, publicity seeking politicos, drunken sportsmen etc), but really, just how much nuance can you squeeze into a tweet. Not even Stephen Fry is really in the running for the Oscar Wilde Cup for Pithy Aphorisms.
So what’s all this got to do with Bart Simpson? Well, by amazing coincidence, this article, The Day Twitter Gave Birth to Bart Simpson, appeared on Splitsider this week. It’s the fascinating story of how a random tweet on February 23 that “Today is Bart Simpson’s 32nd birthday” created a Twitter meme (a “tweme”, anyone?) that went around the Twittersphere, helped on its way by, among others, Rolling Stone, Netflix and the Chicago Tribune.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, the meme gathered more and more weight and acceleration, but was, of course, totally erroneous, as any Simpsonologist could tell you. Well, the birthday of a cartoon character who doesn’t actually age is hardly of major import, but Denise Du Vunay’s article is a fascinating insight on how erroneous information gathers its own irresistible momentum until it has the dubious weight of consensus and before you know, everyone’s citing it as established fact.
That’s hardly new: bad ideas and false information have been doing that for millennia. It’s just that with networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and whatever the next step is that’s surely evolving as we speak, it now happens a hell of a lot faster.
The best defence against ending up with an egg-face interaction a la Patterson is to maintain that essential journalistic skill: healthy scepticism. A sense of humour helps too. God knows I’m aware in today’s under-staffed over-worked news rooms it’s easy just to throw in Twitter comments because they seem to come from someone relevant, but they should rarely be used to hold up a whole story, unless they’re part of a rolling news story such as the Mumbai attack or one of those revolutions that are so popular in some part of the world these days.
Otherwise, they’re best used as a starting point that requires more digging, in much the same way as an anonymous tip-off or those interesting comments from a man down the pub.
After all, while false tweets about Bart and Henry may be harmless and even funny, one day you might be responsible for reporting one that, with its propagation, actually does harm and is not that funny at all.