Twitter, Burton, Brown & the race for news

We are part of The Trust Project What is it? editor Gary Parkinson on how Twitter almost claimed a victim – and it wasn't the Hull City manager

This week, new media newsgathering almost ate itself.

Things move quickly on Twitter.

Ask Carter-Ruck, the law firm whose attempts to gag The Guardian and an MP over oil-trading Trafigura provoked such a freedom-of-speech furore that the "super-injuction" was overturned.

Ask Jan Moir, the Daily Mail columnist whose somewhat questionable dissection of the death of Stephen Gateley caused such a virulent reaction that advertisers demanded their ads be removed from the Mail's website.

Speaking of the Daily Mail's website, and quickly pulling things, there was a strange sequence of events on Wednesday afternoon surrounding Phil Brown.

"I shall be releeeeeeee-ased"

By mid-afternoon, you may have heard that Brown had been sacked.

You may have passed the message on to friends, via Twitter, email, text or old-fangled speech.

When Hull City released a teatime statement insisting Brown was still in situ, did it annoy you that you'd been misinformed?

When people pass on information that turns out to be incorrect, they turn to their source and wave an angry fist, metaphorical or otherwise.

So who was your source? A friend? A forum-dweller? A Sky Sports News reporter? The Daily Mail?


SSN gumshoe Andy Burton is a connected man.

He became famous for his transfer deadline day appearance on Sky Sports News armed with multiple mobile phones, batting away on-air messages from Micah Richards.

Obviously close to players, he recently used his access to laudable ends by challenging Darren Bent to a charity race: first to 10,000 Twitter followers, with the loser paying a day's wages to charity.

Bent's Twitter feed had already achieved a level of notoriety after an angry tweet about his protracted move from Spurs.

Understandably, the somewhat lower-profile Burton lagged behind in the charity race – until he enlisted the help of Jonathan Ross and, more crucially, the 400,000+ Twitter users who follow the DJ's feed.

As a result, Bent lost the bet and paid a day's wages – fittingly enough, probably somewhere north of £10,000.

Burton still has slightly more than 10,000 followers at @footballandy, and early on Wednesday afternoon they all received a tweet from Burton's BlackBerry saying:

@footballandy Think Phil Brown has left Hull. To be confirmed though...

This was big news: a juicy titbit from a recognised journalist about the downfall of a Premier League manager – and one who seems to have attracted a lot of flak from people who may not have been able to find Hull on a map before he took over.

Whether Brown deserves the level of opprobrium he receives is a discussion for a different day, but people were certainly keen to spread the news.

Burton's 10,000 followers might not sound like a high number considering Wossy has near half a million, Stephen Fry 915,000 and Ashton Kutcher almost four million.

But if each of those 10,000 football fans regard this juicy titbit from a recognised journalist as good enough to pass on to 10 friends, and each of those 10 do like wise, then the news will have reached a million in a minute.

And most Twitter users have a lot more than 10 followers.

Within four minutes of Burton's tweet, for example, FourFourTwo's Twitter feed @FourFourTwo had received the following message from a site called On This Football Day:

@otfd Is it to go and top up that tan? RT @footballandy Think Phil Brown has left Hull. To be confirmed though...

News was travelling fast. Fast enough for the bookies to suspend betting on the next to-flight manager to leave his job.

Certainly faster than Hull City, who showed no inclination to kick Brown out: Radio 5 Live asked for confirmation and received a denial.

Too fast, perhaps, for Burton, who tweeted again 34 minutes later:

@footballandy Read it on Daily Mail website re Phil Brown.

As is the norm on Twitter, Burton included a shortened URL linking to the Daily Mail website.

But those following the link soon found a different story, one about how Brown was still fighting for his job.

Within an hour, Burton was back, posting a screengrab of a Daily Mail webpage with the headline "Hull City sack manager Phil Brown, sources tell Sportsmail":

@footballandy This was what I saw, adding to other rumours, and the Daily Mail have since changed their page. What's going on??

What the Burtler saw

What was going on was a thoroughly modern phenomenon: breaking news being corrected on a website.

The thing is, you can't correct a tweet, and though you can delete it, the genie was well and truly out of Burton's bottle.


It's important to note that this isn't a digital version of Chinese whispers... at least not online.

The Daily Mail's Matt Lawton says there was a meeting on Wednesday in which Hull City owner Russell Bartlett had "held talks" with Brown and chairman Paul Duffen.

Now, it's possible that someone at Hull City said something that was re-interpreted and passed on to a journalist or the elusive unnamed "source" we've all read so much about.

But from there, the tale wasn't embellished. What Burton typed was retweeted untold times without alteration.

When we were kids, rumours were passed on with embellishments than ensured as much loss of quality as tape-recording the Top 40 off Radio 1 on Sunday evening.

Now, just as MP3s are endlessly emailed without degradation, tweets are recycled verbatim.

"I taped it first off Tony Blackburn"

It's important to note that Burton didn't do anything wrong.

Via an unofficial channel and under his own name not his employers', he passed on something he'd heard to an obviously interested world.

He even tagged on the "to be confirmed," before displaying his primary source (and hinting about "other rumours"). 

What happened next demonstrates the way football news has accelerated.

We're long past the days when news wasn't broken until it was confirmed by an official source at the relevant club.

News users want results now; they want to be the first to break a story to their own circle of friends, be they drinking buddies, office colleagues or faceless forum dwellers they've never met.

Look at transfer deadline day.

It is, to be frank, a monumental crashing bore of a day that makes the Parliament channel look like compelling viewing.

Like New Year's Eve, it's hyped to the eyeballs as being The Most Important Event In History. And it never is. But we watch.

A must-view for millions – and certainly seldom off in the FFT office – SSN reaches fever pitch on deadline day, with young Alex Payne once declaring it "the best day ever!"

For some, it might be. But the insatiable thirst to be first was always going to choke someone, and it's unfair for Burton to be blamed by anyone who gleefully joins in the rumour distribution.

Still, we had to chuckle that teatime when we got a tweet from On This Football Day...

@otfd Think @footballandy has left SkySports. To be confirmed though...

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