Virtual backlash

On April 16, I sat down at my desk with my usual cup of coffee, expecting the day to be like any other—until I started skimming through headlines on my browser and read about the shootings at Virginia Tech. As news reports continued throughout the day, I wondered what was probably on the minds of a lot of other people: Who was this killer? And what would compel him to commit the deadliest school shooting in American history?

Hours later I thought, for a second, that I had my questions answered. My friend instant messaged me with a link to a LiveJournal belonging to an Asian man who appeared to be a gun enthusiast, as he posed in several photos showing off all sorts of firearms. “This is the killer,” my friend said, without a shred of doubt. I scratched my head for a second and IM'd back: “What’s the source?”

“Oh, there is no source,” he said. “It’s just what people are saying on message boards.”

I let out a groan in frustration—not so much toward my friend, but more so over the realization I had about the Internet and this phenomenon of community-generated information that we’ve labeled Web 2.0. Now that the Internet has freed us from the need of a “middleman” (as Lawrence Lessig would call it)—a publisher or editor of some sort—anyone with Internet access has the ability to become an architect of the truth. Information, however, is being spread so liberally and destructively that the truth is driven even farther away while people’s names get dragged through the mud.

Don't get me wrong; I’m a big fan of community-driven efforts (think Wikis, blogs, Reddit.com, and so forth) to obtain and distribute knowledge freely. There are just a few important steps that should be taken before we take matters into our own hands. These are my suggestions to improve the accuracy of the information we gather and disseminate on the Web.

  1. Never assume: No matter how much you feel your instincts are right, your hunch wouldn’t win you a case in court or even bring legitimacy to a story. Take the incident I mentioned above where Internet posters misidentified an innocent man as the Virginia Tech shooter. They used a few facts that matched the description of the dead suspect—Asian, Virginia Tech student, gun enthusiast, recently broke up with his girlfriend—and assumed it was the same guy; it wasn’t. And as a consequence of this poor practice of “journalism,” the Web damaged his name. Even though he’s innocent, he’ll be remembered by some as the gun enthusiast who people mistook for a mass murderer.
  2. Research, cite sources and, if you can, present evidence: Don’t sit there at your computer and Google around to try and decipher a story. I’ve seen numerous Weblogs attempt to solidify rumor into fact with elliptical, unsubstantiated information, misleading headlines, and wild conclusions. Talk to people. If those people don’t provide enough, talk to more people. Talk to enough people until you can paint a thorough portrait of what’s going on through the eyes of many. Even if you can’t draw a conclusion, by citing sources you can at least give a reader a sense of what people are saying is happening. If you do have a hunch, make an effort to find an objective piece of the puzzle that could somehow support your beliefs—but without jumping to conclusions.
  3. Minimize harm: When gathering information, the last thing you should do is harass people until the truth comes out. Recently I read a thread on SomethingAwful, in which an SA forum member asked other members to help him figure out the identity of a woman his friend had met on the Internet and whether she was who she said she was. After some searching around, a few posters thought they found the woman’s MySpace page; after more searching they obtained her phone number and posted it on the forum. It wasn’t long before the woman started receiving harassing phone calls. Did the posters track down the right person? It seems almost beside the point, given the harassment that resulted.
  4. Don’t abuse your freedom: Because one day we might not have it anymore. The Internet is a wonderful, free space where information can be accessed and distributed freely. Wikipedia, one of the most popular community-based sites on the Web, has already enforced counter-measures against those who abuse this freedom. Rather than treat the Web as a virtual playground, we should be thinking about how to protect our freedom, because one day it might be taken away. Read about Lawrence Lessig’s Save the Internet campaign if you aren’t convinced.

The truth is out there, waiting to be seized, grabbed, and turned over, and many on the Internet are asserting their privilege to do so. I’m glad to see that: It’s a good, noble effort that has had many positive, as well as negative, effects—and it has the potential to be much better. But noble efforts are squashed if people don’t take careful steps. Before anyone—old media or new—clicks the Publish button, they should stop, think for a second, and ask the following questions: Do I have credible, accurate information?; have I asked enough questions?; and most importantly, am I doing more harm than good?

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