To the cynic, Twitter can seem like little more than an arena for self-promotion. In the space of those 140 characters, we’re all trying to find new ways to ‘big ourselves up’.

One way to gain Twitter brownie points is by being among the first to ‘retweet’ emerging or interesting news. The temptation may be to do so without checking its veracity, and so it is that we saw, last week, the spread of a pervasive rumor that rapper Kanye West had died in a car crash.

When rumors can flash across the globe like wildfire, it’s perhaps easy to see what the attraction is in starting them, standing back, and laughing at people’s credulity.

On this occasion, however, it didn’t stop at a few thousand people being suckered. Within hours, those Twitter users who were bothering to check the truth of the story before retweeting found that a search for ‘Kanye West death’ on Google was actually returning pages apparently corroborating the story.

What’s more, clicking one of the links would have led the user to that time-old PC-infecting chancer, the fake anti-virus page.

It seems that the originators of malicious viruses are opportunistically exploiting rumors such as these (or worse – creating the rumors in the first place?) to create new channels for the unwary to fall into their traps. How are they doing it? With the same SEO practices that we all use to try to get legitimate websites ranking highly on Google.

It is a sad day when hackers manipulate a trusted arena like the Google search results page – and it just shows how we have all become complacent thanks to Google’s usually excellent anti-virus safeguards.

Our advice? Check a verified news source such as the BBC before you retweet – and cross your fingers that the hackers don’t find their way onto those sites any time soon.

We’re always talking about the many benefits the social media revolution has brought us. But remember that, just as in real life, the virtual world is an environment in which it pays to be wary.