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The latest social media cautionary tale - the Les Miles "rumour" goes wild on Twitter

Source: Twitter

The predominance of Twitter has taken so-called “citizen journalism” to new levels, allowing anyone to break a story at any time and it reach thousands of viewers in minutes. But misuse of the platform can sometimes become the story itself.

This has again been the case over the weekend, when one person – a Broadcast Journalism student, no less, at Western Kentucky University called Sam McGaw (@sammcgaw) – tweeted a spurious rumour about Louisiana State University football coach Les Miles.

The tweet read: “There are rumors that LSU head football coach Les Miles will step down on Monday after allegedly having an affair with a student. Hmm...” McGaw sent the tweet out to his 238 followers, but the story went wild – being retweeted 168 times and upping McGaw’s follower count to north of a whopping 30,000 in a matter of hours.

As the story gained traction, CBS Sport’s Bruce Feldman poured cold water on it: “Talked to a source at LSU tonight.. there is no truth to that wild rumor.”

Of course by now, however, the story had already spread far and wide. To add to McGaw’s woes, it turned out the “rumours” had come from an Internet message board – hardly the most reliable source for a story; not to mention the message board was, devoted to Alabama Crimson Tide Football, one of LSU's biggest rivals!

McGaw later tweeted again: “It was just a tweet, not a story or breaking news. I'm glad people can confirm or deny this rumor. It benefits everyone.” But the tweeting of the rumour probably didn’t benefit Les Miles, for starters, even if it was later denied.

Some people seem to be confused by Twitter, and don’t realise that what they post is subject to the same standards of libel and defamation as any other medium would be. Twitter is a fantastic way of sharing and finding news but it must be used with a certain caution, especially when discussing people’s personal lives and livelihoods. What’s more, these are the stories people crave the most, and as such are more likely to be widely shared and spoken about, creating a fire that can be impossible for the original poster to put out.

As with freedom of speech, Twitter use comes with a certain responsibility. Sam McGaw isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to see what he thought was an innocent post go a long way.

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