As is too-often repeated but still ever so appropriate, “with great power comes great responsibility” (it comes from Spiderman). The Internet, but more specifically user-generated content such as blogs, tweets, and vlogs, allows anyone to become a content source. The more one has followers/readers/viewers, the more ‘power’ one has. When I blogged a few months ago that Macbooks would take a 50% share of all laptops, I had a variety of comments show up here (most of which completely missed the point I was trying to make, but that’s a different story). I have a handful of readers, so this didn’t really go anywhere – but had an a-list blogger written the same story, who knows where it’d end up.
Example #1: an earthquake occurred in Los Angeles today. The news spread quickly by both “official channels” and individuals using blogs and twitter. A story went up over at VentureBeat which included a reference to a video posted on 12seconds.tv entitled “5.8 LA Earthquake Recreation 36th Floor.” I added the bolded “recreation” myself for emphasis here because many people took the video as fact. Despite it not looking very “earthquake-ish” and despite it posting 30 minutes after the quake was over. Now the VB article’s been updated, but it has since spawned a post decrying the video as “fake”.
I’m pointing this out because not only did the VB author miss the title of the video (which is understandable), but the follow-up blogger did as well, despite the fact that he was clearly trying to determine whether or not it’s a fake. The power of the original article was so strong that even the title of the video wasn’t enough to make someone researching the topic realize it was baloney.
Example #2: Urban legends. How on earth do these still circulate??? My wife is on a mailing list with thousands of mothers in the Bay Area, they recently got sent an email talking about McDonald’s play pens and hypodermic needles. A simple google search for “McDonald’s Ball Pit” reveals link after link decrying the story as fake. Yet it continues to circulate to and from intelligent people all over the place. Need a better example? How about one tweet to instantly convince 50,000 people that Jared Fogle (Subway Jared) is dead (he’s not). One word here: snopes.
Example #3: Today I saw the following headline on FriendFeed: “20% of Primetime Television Now Watched Online” with a link to this article. Now I don’t read SearchEngineWatch, so I have no idea why they’re covering such a topic, but that’s not quite the topic du jour. The person sharing the article has now propagated the story, and his followers (and the followers of whomever then reshares it) will all be wandering around on- and off-line sharing the fact that 20% of TV is being watched online. Only one problem: it’s not. I did one more google search for the firm quoted in the article (Integrated Media Measurement Inc.) and one click later found this finding: “IMMI finds more than 20 percent of panel members watch some prime time programming online” (again, emphasis for effect). While this is still an important statistics, it is a far cry different from the headline being shared (one which is, in my opinion, quite hard to believe anyway, but that’s another matter). Updated: it’s sad to say, but Reuters now has the “20%” story, and yes, they have it wrong.
I know it’s a lot of fun to be on the cutting edge of information. It’s also fun to learn a new fact and rapidly share it along to your friends and family. But whatever happened to double-checking a source? Let’s face it, the news is more about entertainment and ad revenue than it is about reporting facts and accuracy. Just because it happened online doesn’t make it real. As they say, entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.