Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Think Before you Tweet

For class, I'm reading Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, which examines how the irrational construction of social perception undermines democratic governance. The entire book is very thought provoking, but I'd like to focus on one line in particular for this post: 
For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond [...] Let him cast a stone who never passed on as the real inside truth what he had heard someone say who knew no more than he did.
I would say Lippmann wrote this with Twitter in mind but, considering Public Opinion was published in 1922, that would've required a time machine or a favor from Nostradamus. If Lippmann expressed such pessimism for traditional media, I can't imagine the levels of despondency he'd reach contemplating social media.

Take just two recent online myths that would've had Lippmann popping Prozac. After the Bin Laden raid, countless Internet users posted the Martin Luther King Junior quote: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." Then, a blogger's assertion that the quote is fake began to proliferate just as rapidly. Except, as it turns out, the quote is not entirely made up. We went from posting, retracting, to amending a viral meme in a matter of 48 hours.

But not all internet myths are so harmless the misattribution of quotes to national heroes. A few weeks ago, the picture below began to make the rounds. It purportedly shows an Israeli Subaru ad in which a car runs over some Palestinian kids with the caption "We'll see who can stand against you." As Iran's Press TV explains with thinly-veiled satisfication, the ad "has drawn considerable outrage for its implied promotion of running over Palestinian kids."

Except the ad's fake. A company spokesperson said, "we strongly condemn these elements that are trying to harm the good name of the company.”  And the Palestinian Authority, which condemned the ad, admitted "it is not clear whether this is a genuine advertisement or whether someone is making use of the Subaru logo." The picture, however, is not fake. It shows a well-known incident last year in which an Israeli ran over Arab children in East Jerusalem.

Both of these online myths exemplify, in Lippmann's words, "our normal human habit of trying to squeeze into our stereotypes all that can be squeezed, and of casting into outer darkness that which does not fit." We believed the MLK quote because our mythologized MLK would have said something just like that. Anti-Zionists believed the Subaru ad because their demonized Israeli would have boasted about running over children just like the ad.

To overcome the shortfalls of public opinion, Lippmann urged a greater role for experts in informing the press and policy in democratic systems. The problem of social media is that every tweet or post is an implicit contention that people can rely on our expertise or ability to identify expertise. We users therefore need to take the responsibility to act as if we were experts. We must check our sources before we share them. More importantly, when we do make mistakes, it's not enough to just delete them. We have to share our mea culpas in the same way we share everything else. And most importantly, we must think before we tweet.

Taking such personal responsibility will go a long way in resisting the internet's inherent susceptibility to myth and echo chambers. It'll also let poor Lippmann rest a little easier.

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