Twitter was angry today. There was some degree of justification — the horrific shooting in Aurora at the screening of the new Batman movie had emotions running high, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone that. But it demonstrated, once again, some of the dangers inherent in social media — a force which should, by all accounts, be a positive thing.
Misinformation spreads like wildfire on the Internet thanks to services like Twitter. People post things without thinking, without bothering to back things up with research and evidence. Journalists encourage this, with TV news being a particular offender, inviting people to contribute their own thoughts on a particularly pertinent story using hashtags. It thus becomes something of a challenge to determine exactly what the facts are, and what is simple hyperbole dreamed up by the increasingly-hysterical mass of people who suddenly all think that They Know Best.
I shan’t talk too much about the Aurora shooting specifically here because I haven’t read up on all the gory details myself as yet. I will refer to a couple of other recent incidents where this phenomenon became particularly apparent, however.
Most recently was the “Arctic Ready” campaign, in which Shell apparently made the amateurish misstep of opening up a slogan competition on a controversial subject — drilling in the Arctic — to the public. The “Let’s Go! Social” gallery page promptly became filled with anti-drilling, environmentalist slogans and it looked, by all accounts, to be one of the most colossal fuck-ups in social marketing history.
Except that it wasn’t. It was actually a genius piece of social marketing, but not by Shell. No; the whole thing was, in fact, a clever ruse by Greenpeace, who then went on to troll Shell even further by picking a “winner” from the supposed competition and putting it on a billboard right outside Shell’s Houston headquarters.
It should have been pretty obvious to anyone who stopped to think about the whole thing for a moment that this clearly wasn’t Shell’s doing. The kind of people who handle social media marketing are generally fairly savvy sorts (though there are exceptions) and would have stepped in to deal with the mass trolling of the supposed competition. In fact, they would have probably removed it altogether fairly sharpish. They certainly wouldn’t have left it up for several weeks, opened up a new Twitter account just to repeatedly request that people don’t retweet “offensive” adverts and generally keep poking the fire.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. It caught people out not once, but twice — first, when the “Arctic Ready” site first appeared, and again a few weeks later when the Twitter account appeared. People posted, retweeted and commented without stopping to think about whether or not it was real. Others who were wise to it posted, retweeted and commented about how it was clearly fake. But amid all the noise from both sides it became impossible to differentiate who was talking sense and who was simply repeating the digital equivalent of what they had heard down the pub while drunk.
The Shell incident isn’t the only one either. The “Today Is The Day They Went To In Back To The Future Part II” hoax has been around twice, too. Both times it caught people out. Why? Because, again, no-one bothered to check. No-one took a moment to fire up the movie and take a look. If they had, they would have seen that the claims made by whoever started that ridiculous rumour on each occasion were patent nonsense.
It happens in journalism too, and particularly in games journalism. One site posts a “Rumour:” or “Report:” story, and others pick up on it. The content spreads and becomes somewhat distorted over time. It happened today with a story from MCV which, as it turned out, apparently misreported the facts in the first place (or rather, more accurately, posted a story with a misleading headline) and was then sourced by Destructoid and a ton of other sites. This then inspired Ben Kuchera, official unelected and self-styled arbiter of How To Do Games Journalism On The Internet, to pen this piece bemoaning the whole situation, and by God I hate agreeing with Ben Kuchera — but he had a point. With a bit of research (or indeed just carefully reading the quotes that MCV included in its own piece) it’s clear that the “story” (or, more specifically, the headline) that was going around simply wasn’t true.
It’s exhausting at times to keep up with all this stuff, and while it’s great to be able to tap the pulse of everyone at the same time on a hot topic, it’s less great to find yourself in the world’s biggest game of Chinese Whispers. So do me a favour. Before you blindly retweet something that seems a little “off”, take a minute and check to see whether or not it’s actually genuine.