Dallas Morning News sports writer Gerry Fraley is at the center of the perfect Twitter controversy storm thanks to a saga that should remind both news organizations and the general public to take a tweet with a grain of salt.
Wednesday afternoon, the sports world was anxiously waiting news on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry after he was hospitalized with injuries he suffered falling off a pickup truck during a fight with his fiancee.
At around 5 p.m., on an account with Fraley's name, photograph, and a link to the DMN Web site, Twitter user @BioDome10 released a series of tweets that claimed that Henry died. At the time, Henry was battling for his life at a North Carolina hospital, and wouldn't die for another 12 hours.
#bengals Just heard from a friend in Cincy that Chris Henry has passed away...awaiting confirmation now. RIP Chris...so sad.
#bengals Just spoke to Dr. Allenberg, the head of the ICU at Piedmont Regional Medical Center, he confirmed Chris Henry has passed away and
Several news organizations reported that Henry had died, citing the fake-Fraley tweets, before @BioDome10 was revealed as a fraud. ESPN's Schefter, who was mentioned in two of @BioDome10's tweets, revealed the fraud in his own tweet, calling it "bogus and repulsive." An intense backflash soon followed.
To make things more confusing, another account purporting to be Fraley cropped up late Wednesday night and the Twittersphere spent a good amount of time trying to sort out who was who. Luckily, the Dallas Morning News cleared things up with a Tweet earlier this afternoon.
The sad ending came early Thursday morning, when Henry died from his injuries.
As bizarre as this may seem, it is nothing new for the Twitter community. Impersonation accounts and death rumors have plagued the site since its inception.
Twitter has served as the vehicle for death rumors about big names like Britney Spears to Zach Braff over the past year. To fend off impersonators, the site now offers "verified accounts" for big names -- not that this always prevents a controversy from brewing -- but not everyone has signed up.
To keep this kind of mess from repeating itself, it is crucial that news organizations verify their accounts -- and carefully vet any tweet they use as a source. Until this is done, we're going to see a lot of history repeating itself.