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Our Views: Beware the buzz

Real and false alarms over violent attacks are made worse by cyberspace rumor mill

POSTED: May 5, 2013 1:00 a.m.

It’s hard to ignore the world around us with so many ways of communication available to people of all ages and parts of the globe. As more of us connect with each other through mobile devices of every kind, we find ourselves less isolated and more integrated, albeit often from a distance linked by satellite.

Yet while technology has its benefits — who doesn’t want to Skype with grandma? — it clearly has downsides. The problem with constant communication is that misinformation is everywhere, and the lag time between breaking news and confirmation of it seems longer than it really is.

That was never more obvious than during the hours following the Boston bombings. Rumors swirled around the Internet and on social media like a dust devil traveling across a desert. Caught up in the storm were innocent individuals mistaken for the bomber or blamed for having said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The administrators behind the popular social media site Reddit.com had to issue public apologies and warn its users to be more mindful of the power behind the Worldwide Web after its “Findthebostonbombers” thread called out specific people standing near the scene as suspects.

The incident led to the harassment of the family of missing student Sunil Tripathi, who was mistaken as one of the suspects based on his likeness to someone in the photos.

“Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” reads a statement from Reddit.

Even more established news organizations were quick to announce an arrest a few days after the bombing, and many picked up on it quickly, though it turned out to be another false, fleeting rumor.

In other cases, athletes or celebrities get in hot water by sending misconstrued Tweets that lead to explanations or apologies. It can be hard to understand someone’s tone in a text. What was meant to be funny comes out as bigoted or insensitive.

But those are just examples of the law of unintended consequences. There are certainly plenty of intentional attacks.

Most recently, the Associated Press fell victim to a hack on its Twitter account with a Tweet announcing the White House was under attack. The result: the stock market tanked. The effect was felt around the world.

It points out the frightening downside of instant communication: All it takes is one bogus story, or even just a few lines of one, to set off a tidal wave of negative consequences.

For some, the use of such technology to spread misinformation is nothing more than overexuberance and a desire to be part of the action. Yet for others, inexplicably, the intent is malicious as they delight in the mischief caused by their digital creativity without regard for accuracy or facts.

Does this mean we should take our information with a grain of salt? Possibly. But we should also consider the source. And in many cases, the source’s source. A healthy skepticism, always useful in a world of swirling ideas and stories, is our best weapon against jumping to conclusions based on the latest social media buzz.

However, there is another factor to consider here. Is it possible in today’s fast-pace, blow-by-blow relay of information, we have forgotten the first rule of crisis management: Remain calm. Our sensory overload and daily barrage of entertainment masquerading as news has caused us to react without thinking. In some cases, overreact.

Each new terrorist attack or mass shooting sets off a wave of jittery reaction. Any backpack left in a public place is seen as an explosive device. Every innocent incident near a school leads to a lockdown or temporary crisis. While such reaction is prudent and understandable in each individual case, in the big picture we must realize we have lost our sense of trust.

A generation ago, new President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation’s dwindling hope, challenging us by saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As a people, we have picked ourselves up time and again after wars, economic crises and natural disasters by summoning our collective courage.

That courage remains, evident in the aftermath of the Boston attack when so many came to aid the injured. But some still shrink under a barrage of frightening news, leaving us unsure of what is real and what is yet another ghost of a threat.

Cowardly attacks are aimed not just at killing a few people but shattering the confidence of the many. For every person directly affected, thousands begin to doubt and anxiety becomes our default reaction. And, in the vernacular of the occasion, some will say when that happens, “the terrorists win.”

They’re not winning, not by a long shot, but they are scoring a few points every time they rattle our collective nerves. And the onslaught of innuendo in each case only makes that worse.

Let’s all take a deep breath, be aware of what is really happening and trust the right sources for information when the world turns upside down. We will get through any crisis if we keep our heads about us and understand that America’s strengths can withstand the blow.

Yet letting gossip heard over the cyber-fence steer us into a constant state of anxiety is not befitting who we are as a people.


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