A couple of weekends ago I was fascinated by all the chat on Twitter about Johnny Depp; he had been killed in a car crash apparently. Except that he wasnâ€™t dead. Oh yes he was, oh no he wasnâ€™t. So determined were the scammers they had even mocked up a superficially convincing CNN.com homepage link that was doing the rounds. Let me make it clear for all Johnny Depp fans, he is NOT dead – or not, at least, at the time of writing.
But it was a perfect example of how easy it is for mischief to spread, how hard it is to authenticate sources in all forms of gossip, and how very vulnerable Twitter is to manipulation, whether for fun, evil or just plain old profit.
Which brings me to the Rage Against The Machine vs Joe McElderry Christmas no 1 hoo-ha. This is not about musical taste. I would rather stick knitting needles through my ears than have to listen to either for any longer than it would take to block them up with cotton wool.
The online campaign to prevent the X Factor winner from becoming the Christmas no 1 was initially presented as a spontaneous grassroots uprising against the forces of evil (aka Simon Cowell). Maybe it was. But I have also heard that it was a brilliantly executed piece of PR by RATMâ€™s record company, Sony, (of which Simon Cowell also happens to be a director), which managed to dupe large numbers of people into buying a track that many hadnâ€™t even heard â€“ and sometimes disliked intensely when they heard it – in the belief that they were striking a blow for freedom. Mmmm, conspiracy theory gone overboard? The trouble is I have no idea which of those it was.
Letâ€™s take the RATM campaign at face value for a moment. Those who took part positioned the 12m+ people who watched the X Factor, and the many millions who chose to vote and subsequently chose to buy recordings of any finalist and the winner as no more than mindless morons who did Simon Cowellâ€™s bidding. They, by contrast, were intellectually superior, anti-marketing, independently minded guardians of quality music.
This sort of aristocratic arrogance is not uncommon on Twitter. But in reality they were as much subject to the X Factorâ€™s influence as anyone else, on the principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When they pause to question who actually made them buy Rage Against the Machine they will find that it was Mr Simon Cowell, probably unintentionally, but also quite possibly deliberately.
Having watched the excellent Virtual Revolution on BBC2, a history of the internet, itâ€™s clear that the web has been a massive democratiser and leveller and given a voice to many who would be denied one otherwise. But itâ€™s dangerous to treat it with quasi-religious reverence; we all need to maintain normal levels of scepticism and caution.
From now on, I am going to tread carefully before I get swept up in any online campaign until I can be satisfied what its origins â€“ and motives â€“ are. And before I believe anything I read on Twitter, I am going to check it out with some professional, accredited, transparent journalistic source. Hereâ€™s hoping there are a few left. And before I sign off, please join me in my campaign to make the English Baroque Soloistsâ€™ recording of Bachâ€™s Christmas Oratorio the 2010 Festive no 1 in which I promise I have no vested interest.