Remember in school when the teacher decided to show how easily and quickly a story told by word of mouth could be totally turned around?
You or one of your classmates was told a short story, usually about something that happened (in make-believe world) to someone. That person told the person next to them and up and down the rows in the classroom.
By the time it got back to the first person, it was often the complete reverse of what the teacher had told the first student.
Law enforcement investigators often run into the same type of thing, where witnesses to a crime have widely different recollections.
Well, in this age of instant information, thanks (or curses?) to social media outlets, that now happens around the globe in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
The Associated Press earlier this week had its Twitter account hacked and someone sent out a tweet that claimed the White House was under attack and President Obama was injured.
Of course, totally false, and AP suspended its Twitter account as soon as it could, after sending out a tweet explaining what happened.
But the stock market didn't waste time plummeting before it turned around and gained ground by the end of the day.
This followed the tragic incidents of the previous week, starting with the Boston Marathon bombing. I've been learning more about Twitter and how to use it as a tool in my journalistic pursuits. I have to say it was kind of impressive to get a retweet last Friday night that was originally tweeted by the Boston Police Department, announcing they had the second suspect in custody.
I thought then, hey, this may be a pretty good way to get the news to the public.
But, as usual, someone has to come along, hack the AP account and start to send the nation and the world into a tizzy that could have been a heck of a lot worse.
This all, once again, brought home to me how things have changed.
When I started in this business, computers (an Apple IIE was the first one I used, with the big floppy disc you had to insert every time you turned the machine on) were only starting to have a presence. Reporters used a phone book so much, some went through more than one copy in a year. (I still carry one in the back seat of my car out of habit.)
And I still have my somewhere-around-10-year-old black contact book, full of penciled in names and numbers. Some pages have been erased so many times they're starting to tear out of the book.
But those old school ways we had of gathering information and writing stories, which didn't reach everyone until the next morning's newspaper arrived, had a big advantage, in my opinion.
It gave us, the messengers, time to get the story right. And we didn't have to worry - too much - about someone changing the words or even the intent of our stories.
As we saw the other day, in less than 140 characters, perhaps millions of people started to think we were under attack again. All because some joker hacker thought it would be fun to see what happened if he illegally broke into a private account and spread what was really a vicious falsehood.
Others kind of jumped on the bandwagon and started tweeting what they thought AP's password might have been to their hacked account. Check them out if you like. Just piling on, in my opinion.
If there's any lessons - other than changing our passwords on a regular basis, which has been the best advice online security officials have touted for years - I hope it makes people slow down a little and think before reacting. Or overreacting.
We live in an exciting, frustrating, saddening and even maddening time. Not all is gloom and doom. But let's hope, after all these recent events around the country, that many people focus on the positive and help their neighbors understand what's really happening.
And don't believe everything you hear, read or see. Especially online. The truth is often hard to ferret out. But I've found it eventually surfaces.
Mike McKibbin is the editor of The Citizen Telegram.