I’m probably dating myself here, but I remember a college class titled “Ethics in Journalism” in which we studied the classic Orson Welles 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” The radio show detailing a Martian Invasion in New Jersey was so well done, it induced a nationwide panic that, indeed, aliens had landed.

Flash forward, or if we’re talking about aliens, beam forward, to present day southern Mexico, where CBS is reporting that a former teacher turned radio commentator and a math tutor who lives with his mother, sit in prison on charges of terrorism and sabotage for something they Tweeted.

No national radio broadcast,  just a 140 character tweet that turned them into “TwitTerroristas.”

Prosecutors allege the defendants helped cause a mass panic in the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz because they Tweeted reports that gunmen were attacking schools.  Interior Secretary for Veracruz State, Gerardo Buganza, says:

  • There were 26 car crashes
  • people left their cars in the street
  • emergency lines were jammed as people ran to pick up their children

Granted, Veracruz was already on edge because of increasing tension between rival drug traffickers and authorities.  But in that heightened emotional state, the pair independently decided to relay rumors they had heard by Twitter.

The AP reports one tweet said “My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from school.”

Defense attorneys maintain the rumors had already started and that the defendants were just relaying what others had said.

Online petitions are circulating demanding the people be released.  Amnesty International claims the charges violate freedom of expression.

However the case turns out, it does make you pause for a minute before Tweeting out a rumor you just heard.   In fact, considering both are dangerous and damaging, we can go ahead and refer to Tweeting as…

A high tech form of neighborhood gossip.

In both cases, rumors control too much of the conversation.  Accordingly, the AP report continues, with Paul Trego, an expert on media and violence at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who provides some wise advice:  “Twitter users must learn not to believe everything and simply take the Twitter messages as an indication that some (report) is making the rounds.”

I couldn’t agree more. But what about you? Have you ever believed a rumor circulating on Twitter?