The headlines conjured memories of pick ‘n’ mix and the high street of a bygone age – but claims that Woolworths was about to make a return turned out to be just another example of fake news.
On Tuesday morning an unverified Twitter account called @UKWoolworths with fewer than 2,000 followers and no website announced that the once-popular high street store would be returning.
The account, which repeatedly misspelled the name of the shop as “Woolsworths”, said they had a “a couple of legal things to get sorted” but they hoped to bring the shop back to the high street with three trial stores opening in late 2021.
Despite the warning signs this was enough to prompt MailOnline, the Daily Mirror and Metro.co.uk to rapidly publish articles stating that the shop was returning to the high street.
But Very – the catalogue company that bought the Woolworths brand after the original chain went bust in 2008 – told the Guardian the story was completely false.
“We own the Woolworths trademark in the UK. The Twitter account UKWoolworths is not connected to the Very Group.”
Individuals in some of the newsrooms which published the stories have said they are encouraged by management to rush out articles in order to rank highly on Google News and in a bid to go viral in Facebook groups, often prompted by monitoring the performance of other sites.
Rather than wait to verify facts, these sources said, headlines and whole stories can be quietly rewritten if they are debunked.
Meanwhile, the news website in question continues to benefit from the readers who were sharing links to the original, false story and its high ranking on Google.
Dozens of local news websites, many of which are owned by Daily Mirror publisher Reach and share content with its national titles, also wrote up the Woolworths story. The Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo, and Birmingham Live all ran it with a slight local spin. Within an hour they were either rapidly rewriting or deleting their stories.
A spokesperson for Reach said they were responding to a fast-moving story: “This morning a story broke on Twitter from an account claiming to be Woolworths UK that some trial stores would open. Like other news outlets we reported this speculation. Several Reach newsrooms investigated further, reporting it was the first time that Very, the Woolworths brand owner, knew about this.
“Reach staff work hard to ensure its journalism is accurate. Stories are chosen based on what editors of that site believe will be of interest to their readers. We do not sacrifice accuracy for speed on any of our titles.”
A spokesperson for MailOnline did not return a request for comment.
Stories based around nostalgic topics – such as the return of a once much-loved shop, chocolate bar, or television programmes – are particularly susceptible to being shared.
But while the prospect of Woolworths’ return excited the public on a cold October morning during a pandemic, the brand has less allure for Very.co.uk who closed down its Woolworths-branded website in 2015.