As I fished about for a subject to perplex readers with this week, news came that the police had pulled the body of Sunil Tripathi from a river in Providence, Rhode Island.
The university student from Boston suffered from serious depression and disappeared in March, which is a tragic story repeated all too often when people suffer from mental illness. What was different this time is what happened in the days following the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, weeks after he went missing.
Tripathi was singled out by what USA Today called "amateur sleuths" (a.k.a. vigilante thugs) on Reddit and named as a viable suspect behind the Boston attack because, the "logic" went, he wasn't where he was supposed to be. As his name swept through social media his family was abused and threatened by anonymous Internet trolls who thought they'd found their terrorist. After all this hell on top of worrying about a missing son and brother, perhaps the Tripathis can now mourn and remember him in peace.
It's worth noting that other young men were also falsely identified, including the New York Post plastering the photo of 17-year-old Salah Barhoun on its cover; social media shared that cover with the world and forced the frightened teen to make a beeline for the nearest police station in order to be cleared and not lynched.
With much social media comes much irresponsibility? Stupidity? Unaccountability? Something more sinister?
These "mistakes" often turn out to be an investment in rip-roaring hatred and xenophobia with all restraints ripped off. If we know nothing else about 20 years of Internet interference in our lives, hatred has created a kind of horrible megalopolis along the information superhighway.
Crowdsourcing the judge, jury and executioner is a really bad idea, but I am trying to find a way to avoid this without incredibly heavy regulation (also an anathema).
Last week the Syrian Electronic Army — which I wish was a band booked for two weeks of retro-disco gigging at a Whistler nightclub — hacked into the Associated Press Twitter account, just as they had with the BBC and elsewhere, and announced that two bombs had exploded at the White House and the president was injured.
Predictably, Wall Street dumped stock, though when it became apparent that this was bullcrap it quickly recovered, creating a financial crevasse in the daily Dow Jones points graph. It was a perfect example of how to play on the pathetic anxiety that permeates our culture.
On April 30, the New Yorker Magazine ran a piece that was succinctly entitled Speed Kills. In it, writer George Packer said journalists have a stake in being careful when getting information online, that we are meant to be professionally trained to have a stake in being accurate "unlike high-frequency traders, Internet entrepreneurs, and online vigilantes."
He's right, but that's the ideal. Let's get a little closer to the information coalface and start with content creation and sharing. Publish and be damned, the saying used to go. It is even truer now, with the added pressure of making information public without reflection or, often, accuracy. Getting it wrong in the day-to-day news cycle was easy. The 24-hour news cycle almost makes it de rigueur to plant mistakes out in the world where they take root and are never corrected.
Trained journalists are wrong often enough, the fools, and we're meant to understand the ramifications of our actions. (But to be honest, in my long career in England and Canada I've also seen journalists and editors who knew exactly what they were doing in planting misinformation.)
What can be done? Laissez-faire? Leave alone and watch the consequences? One answer that keeps popping into my head is to include Internet literacy with education on online safety that is already ongoing in schools. Start by teaching Grade Sixers that along with awareness of Internet predators, cyber bullying and other risks, there should also be awareness of how misinformation and lies become public information and worm their way into being seen as "truth." A discussion or two on this every year until graduation would be invaluable.
This means teaching kids, in a way that they can relate to, about critical thinking, about developing research faculties in themselves, deciding who to trust and accepting a broad spectrum of sources, about engaging in civic life and understanding that learning, correction, questing for more, and intellectual rigour is something they take out of the classroom and into the whole length of their lives.
It might not stop all the mistakes, but it would stop some people from following falsehoods in an ignorant, sheep-like stupor. Might even open up discussion on what hate is and what the outcomes of hate in the age of the Internet can be.
Maybe in a few months I'll be pitching here for my first e-book, entitled Critical Thinking: How Readers Can Choose a Positive Way Forward In an Age of Hateful Dross and Save Lives and Brain Cells. But would anyone buy it?