There’s a longer post that I’ll write up about social media at the AZ shootings, but for the moment I wanted to share some excerpts from my book as a gentle reminder to check everything you share before you post. There were some awful mishaps this weekend, and I hate to see us keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.
You can read all the sections from this part of my book:
Here are some key excerpts from each…
Stop, Drop and Think
While sharing news is generally a good thing (hey, you’re reading Share This!), we’re not necessarily equipped to process and react responsibly when we’re hit with surprising or salacious news — or information that provokes a strong emotional response. We tend to share first and ask questions later, and, as we’ll see below, doing so can cause serious damage and distrust.
Part of this shortcoming is biological: the part of our brains that reacts to emotional content, the amygdala, isn’t the most sophisticated piece of machinery. It interprets and paints events and emotions in broad strokes, most simply as positive or negative. Not a lot of nuance there.
The rest of our brain is supposed to help by engaging and filtering information based on context. We’re supposed to take into account physical actions, such as a person’s body language and the tone of conversation, as well as our surroundings. Digital media doesn’t provide these cues, so the other parts of our brain aren’t activated. In fact, research shows that email flaming (inappropriate negative reactions expressed publicly online) is a result of these missing cues.
 The absence of tone and body language seems to shunt slightly annoying words straight into our reptile brains and get us all upset right away. Fascinating read, check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/20/health/psychology/20essa.html
I’m Not Dead Yet: Stopping Info Misflow
Before the Internet, we relied on the authority of our peers to share trustworthy information, with some degree of success (and failure… I grew up thinking I’d die if I simultaneously ate Pop Rocks and drank a Coke). The Internet hits the scene, and suddenly there’s an explosion of urban legends. Remember those email chains where a little boy with cancer only wished to see his email forwarded around?
Urban legends and hoaxes make emotional appeals that force us to address our common cultural fears (death, terror, freaky candy that pops in your mouth). If we trust the information source (usually a friend or family member), we usually believe the information is true… we transfer a person’s general trustworthiness to individual bits of news, without verifying whether the information is correct.
But if someone repeatedly shares enough false information, we naturally respond by lowering the authority that person has in the news-sharing department. Quick survey: How many people don’t read emails from Aunt Beatrice anymore because she sent the human organ theft hoax again?
We’re at roughly the same level with social networks right now as we were with email in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The tools are new and snazzy, and we don’t yet have a sophisticated understanding of the role they play in our lives.
When Twittering Goes Awry
Everyday people on social networks were susceptible to the same bandwagon mentality. The high emotional content of the information coming out of Iran drove people to share first and source later. The resulting confusion of reports being shared outside of Iran didn’t necessarily lead directly to the arrest or deaths of protesters, but the proliferation of misinformation did create a mythology about the impact social networking tools actually had on serious, life-changing events inside a repressive regime. To a large extent, Iranian protesters were not using Twitter, and the cell phone network had been shut down. By perpetuating the myth that protesters were subverting a dangerous, repressive, totalitarian regime purely with shiny new technology, mainstream media and participants who shared misinformation created a dangerous situation for the next conflict, in which dissenters could mistakenly believe that these tools will save their lives on their own. Technology of any kind, especially in countries run by despots, will not absolve us from responsibility for the difficult, and dangerous, work of organizing against power structures that threaten lives.
Lessons of Iran’s Aftermath
We have to demand more accountability from our sources, regardless of who they might be. We may not have the benefit of the physical cues (voice and body language), but we have learned over time to be more savvy news consumers. And we’ve come to demand accountability — whether we get our news from large, well-funded companies or from small blogs. We need to apply skepticism and critical thinking skills to our networks as well. Finally, we have to learn a new kind of media literacy, one where we are not simply reacting. I’m reminded of the advice we were given as kids: If you’re on fire, “stop drop and roll.” Try this: if your news stream is on fire, stop, drop and think. Take a moment to process the information you receive and verify it through authoritative sources.
It’s important that we choose wisely. As we’ve discussed before, all of us have a critical role to play in the changing nature of authority and in determining who becomes valued as a trusted news source. As we create new guidelines for coming generations, we have a responsibility to support spaces where diverse voices are heard, varied experiences are shared, and trustworthy information is spread.