Posted by: Kristen Ridley | April 30, 2015

Brave new world, or wild, wild west?

Recent events, in particular the violence and rioting in several U.S. cities following the injury or death of African-Americans during or after arrest by law enforcement, have really made me consider – and struggle with – the “new world” of information delivery that social media and the 24-hour news cycle have created.

On the one hand I love social media! I use Twitter, Facebook and other websites daily, and find them a tremendously valuable resource for information, connection and staying abreast of what people are talking about. As a communications professional, those are the foundations of what I do and they are critical tools to enable me to do it well.

On the other hand, the immediacy, speed and ease of posting things for the world to see has reduced, if not entirely eliminated the obligation that has traditionally been part of mainstream media’s content delivery, to scrupulously fact-check and identify sources to ensure the truth of a piece of information before publishing it. With the advent of social media absolutely anyone can post anything, any time with no thought or responsibility to confirm whether something they are saying or validating is factual.

The democratic nature of this wild new west of information has the benefit of allowing those who in the traditional media landscape would not have access to present their messages, to do so unfettered by anyone’s agenda but their own. And therein lies both the benefit and the risk.

These recent instances of violence have particularly resonated for me because they have highlighted something about social media that has disturbed me for a while. I call it “repost-because-you-agree-with-it-and-would-like-it-to-be-true” syndrome. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Someone posts a “news” story that is highly inflammatory or extreme in terms of bad behaviour or a terrible act by someone whom you don’t like/support on a political or philosophical level [or even something/someone you DO agree with] without researching to confirm whether what we’re reposting is accurate, whether it happened exactly as the meme says it did, or frankly, if it happened at all. We’ve all done it – heck in my early days on social media I did it myself [I’m not proud of it, but honesty requires me to admit it].

Human nature is what it is – we are predisposed to accept people, stories and perspectives that align with our own world-view. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with gravitating to people with similar world-views – although I’m proud to say that I have a number of online friends with whom I agree on very little, but whom I consider as, if not more important to keeping me honest in terms of my views and opinions, because they challenge me to seriously consider the validity of those views and, when appropriate, ask me to defend, or at least explain them in a clear and sensible way. [Note: in fact, it was one of those very types of friends – Isaac Pigott – who’s Facebook post of this morning  helped inspire this post.

But my hope for the possibility that we can do better continues to persevere, despite mountains of evidence suggesting it’s a well and truly lost cause [what can I say? There’s obviously some Pollyanna left in me even at my advanced age!]. So I am publishing, here on my blog for anyone who cares to read it, the things that I promise to do when I see these oh-so-tempting heinous-sounding stories and want to knee-jerk hit “share”:

I will:

  • Stop-drop-and-think – similar to “stop-drop-and-roll” from our childhood fire safety training, I think that our obsessive access to social media stories almost designed to start metaphorical fires and create angry wedges between us at exactly a time in our history when we can least afford that, does all of us a huge disservice. So when I see these things, no matter how tempting, I promise to stop and really think about it before I share. A few minutes quiet contemplation aren’t going to kill anyone if I don’t repost that story immediately, or ever! [I’m really just not that important]
  • Find out if it’s TRUE – this is a big one, because as we all know when you post a really juicy sounding story, it often ends up as “front page” and makes its way around the entire interwebs before somebody points out that IT NEVER HAPPENED! Or at the very least, it didn’t happen the way we’re saying it did. The biggest problem with that is that it’s almost impossible to stop something like that once it spreads. It keeps popping up because someone new sees it, reposts it because it “sounds” like it could have happened, and the whole nasty cycle starts all over again. The good thing about the interwebs, is that thanks to Google, it really isn’t difficult or time-consuming to find out if something is true. Sites like Snopes.com make it super-easy to find out if “Starbucks refused to send free product to marines serving in Iraq, saying the company didn’t support the war or anyone taking part in it” ever really happened [I’ll save you some time – it didn’t! See details here]
  • Challenge my contacts who post things that aren’t true – I’ve actually done this [the Starbucks think was one of those challenges] and I think we all have a responsibility to say: “Just so you know this “whatever” story isn’t actually accurate, and here’s the link to the confirmation of that,” because we can use our social media power for good, too, by stopping these online fallacies before they get shared hundreds or millions of times. Because do you REALLY want to be sharing untrue things as though they’re really?! I know I don’t.
  • Consider whether sharing it is necessary/valuable – now, far be it from me to try to dictate what anyone else shares or reposts on their own social media accounts, because I couldn’t even if I wanted to. So instead, I’ll just say that *I* will give serious consideration to whether there is a value or a usefulness in passing along that inflammatory post [even if it IS actually true] to continue to whip people up about it. Because if it’s not something I truly believe my circle is going to run out and DO SOMETHING ABOUT, then I’m not so sure I see the necessity of getting everyone’s righteous indignation into a full-on froth. Which brings me to another thing – if I AM going to try to engage your emotions into overdrive, and believe that is an honourable action, I will suggest something you can DO about it. Because there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to act – write to your politicians, donate to an important cause, go out and join the demonstration for a cause you believe is just, and I have actually done that. But to just post something to get my, and your knickers in a twist on Facebook? Yeah, probably not.

I won’t change THE world by committing to these “rules” for social media sharing [again, I’m not that important], but what’s that quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead

So, what the heck – let’s give it a go, and see what happens.

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