Monday, October 22, 2012

Timmy Falls Down The Well In Social Media.

In the show Lassie, Timmy never fell down a well.  In fact, the only thing that ever fell down a well was actually Lassie herself during season 17.  Despite this, it's almost a universally accepted axiom that Timmy fell down a well during one of the 7 seasons he was the owner of Lassie, whilst being a simultaneously unknown fact that Lassie did.  Social Media suffers with a similar issue where some piece of information takes hold and then spreads like wildfire until everyone believes what they've read as being real.

The problem with this is people have a tendency to connect what they've heard with who they've heard it from.  In the same way a child might believe information received from its parents when they've gotten something wrong, people will blindly accept snippets of information as fact from the people they trust.

This leads to some pretty dangerous consequences.

In the old days, it was fairly common for rumours and misinformation to spread and then the next thing you know, some poor innocent people are tied to wooden stakes as the flames go higher, surrounded by a feverish crowd of people who are hell-bent on believing that the status quo is the correct outcome.  Fast forward to last week and this sounds like the guy in BC that was wrongly targeted as the bully of Amanda Todd, right?

Social media today has the same powerful flaw that every other medium of communication has had in the past, and that's the ability to start a witch-hunt.  I know that.  You know that.  The issue is there's the other 99.999% of the online population out there that doesn't know that.  Worse, if they want to question something, they're ill-equipped to verify what's truth or fiction.

National media and news outlets can really whip this issue into something of epic proportions.  First, you start of with the headlines and slap a word or two in there to indicate that this is baseless information.  Example:

  • Breaking: Something happened somewhere. Report.
  • Reports that something happened somewhere. More shortly.
This type of "break the news first, substantiate it later" is now typical behaviour from the type of establishments that the average person on the street looks to for fact and education.  The problem, as I see it, is nobody is addressing this.  

To recap: Social Media generated by the public is feeding the news outlets that is then often blindly forwarding misinformation to the public, therefore completing the cycle and reinforcing that the news must be true.  The media has a social obligation to educate people in not just what is going on in the world, but also in what is true and false.

If anything has fallen down the well, it is the media's sense of social responsibility.