Just a few days after his exposure as a fake, Santiago Swallow’s twitter feed was back online, this time under the acknowledgement that he is “a pure product of the internet”. The account has over 60,000 followers, and counting. Most of them appear to be legitimate – while his automated ramblings are increasingly difficult to distinguish from “authentic” provocations (“Morning has broken. It is going to take from now until dusk to fix it.”). Reflecting the world back to itself does not make you right, or mean you have anything to say. But once you’re officially a news event yourself, all justifications are suspended.
For those despairing of any form of honesty, there’s some good news to be found in analyses of what does and doesn’t get weeded out over time. As Jamie Bartlett, head of the centre for the analysis of social media at think-tank Demos, recently observed in the Huffington Post: “Given the immediacy and ease of propagation, plausible misinformation often spreads very quickly… [but] untrue stories are usually fairly short lived due to some of the Twitter user community acting as information brokers who will actively check and debunk information.”
In one study of tweets produced following the 2010 earthquake in Chile, around 96% of tweets containing truthful information were subsequently “affirmed” by users, while around 50% of rumours discovered to be false were “denied” – a statistic that suggests a different kind of principle in operation. Frenzies of speculation may be easy to whip up – and have troubling immediate consequences – but, over time, falsehoods will often be sniffed out.
All of which brings us back to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, James Callaghan and Santiago Swallow. Would Santiago have been outed even if his creator hadn’t exposed him? Almost certainly. An online lie, though, never quite vanishes. Having leapt across the world, its echoes wait to snare the unwary – or those who simply enjoy choosing their own truths. Perhaps the hardest thing to resist is a story that wants you to tell it.