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Loose Tweets Sink Lives

by Mike Rothschild

April 22, 2013

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Donate We’re all familiar by now with the mistakes made in the reporting of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and how they turned both the “traditional media” and citizen journalists into fountains of misinformation and error. But what hasn’t been discussed anywhere near as much is how we can stop it from getting so out of control the next time a tragedy occurs. I do believe that even those of us without newspaper bylines or television infotainment hours have a part to play in getting us all to think clearer when the smoke clears. We can’t all give blood or donations, but we can help in another way: with our critical thinking skills.

The litany of disasters from the media in the wake of the bombing has been well-documented. For those less familiar with individual errors, here’s a quick primer. Less than a day after the attacks, the New York Post declared a “Saudi national” had been arrested. Despite being completely devoid of truth (a young Saudi man, who had been wounded in the blast, was questioned then released quickly), the story was picked up by dozens of major news outlets.

It was a massive journalistic error that was spectacularly trumped by CNN announcing on April 17th that a “dark-skinned” suspect had been arrested for the bombing.

News outlets again grabbed the story and ran, until it became clear that no suspect, dark-skinned or otherwise, had been arrested. CNN became a punching-bag and journalism was shooting itself in the foot time and time again at the time it was needed the most. So the nebulous throng of citizen journalists that has sprung up in the tail of the social media revolution went to work.

They analyzed photos of people wearing backpacks and drew circles and arrows on grainy security camera stills of shifty-looking folks standing on rooftops or carrying black backpacks, people who were doing nothing other than whatever shifty-looking folks standing on rooftops or carrying black backpacks do. And they posted reams of personal, identifying information about totally innocent people who had nothing to do with the bombing except getting caught in it. More innocent "suspects" were fingered.

A slew of false reports and swiftly-spreading nonsense, most of it reported in good faith, was taking hold, travelling farther with each Facebook share, Twitter retweet and message board comment. And the speed at which they spread made them all the more difficult to debunk. The rumors became bacteria in an out-of-control science experiment, threatening to choke vital information. It was only after the FBI released photos of the two men who truly were suspects that people finally began to calm down and let law enforcement do their job.

So what can we do about this lightning-fast spread of falsehood? While the vast majority of us don’t have the power to stop these rumors from starting, we can absolutely do everything in our power to stop them from spreading. Loose lips may sink ships, but loose tweets can ruin lives.

The first thing we can do is something Skeptoid listeners are used to doing already: be skeptical. The hours after a major incident are also the most uninformed, as we struggle to learn what happened, never mind who did it. That’s the time to stop, think and listen, not to retweet, repost or share unconfirmed reports. It’s natural to try to prognosticate on who the culprit is, but until more information emerges, that’s all it is, prognostication. Nothing should be treated as hard news or fact, even things that seem like they make sense. And many of the ideas spreading around actually did make sense. The idea of a Saudi national being the bomber seemed perfectly logical right up until it was determined to be completely false, dragging a totally innocent person through the mud in the process. We can all stop a rumor when it comes to us, and it’s our responsibility to do so.

We can also push back against people who do buy into the false information. Obviously, you don’t want to lose friends and alienate people over this, and there’s no reason you should. People don’t want to be wrong, and you can help them not be. It’s perfectly acceptable to comment on something that someone shares to let them know that what they’re “reporting” hasn’t been confirmed, and maybe they should just sit tight. They and those reading might not know, and you’d be doing them a favor by setting them straight.

You can especially push back against influencers and celebrities. It’s a pretty safe bet that the more well-known a person is, the more followers they have on social media, and thus, more reach. This makes it all the more critical that they put forth correct, confirmed information. The day of the bombing, writer/director Kevin Smith tweeted out to his nearly 2.4 million followers
NY Post says suspect is a Saudi national." Gotta confirm this with another news agency but looks legit.
But it wasn’t legit. In fact, at the time Smith posted the link, numerous other outlets had debunked the Post story. And I tweeted Smith to tell him so. I’m not naïve enough to think he read my tweet and had a eureka moment, but apparently enough people got through to him, and he removed the tweet from his timeline. If every critical thinker hammered every celebrity wrongfully reporting incorrect news with messages, would they stop doing it? It’s certainly worth a try. Smith was one who did come around, as he later retweeted a message from an editor at the Boston Globe:
Lots of rumors today. JFK Library explosion unrelated. No suspect in custody. Important to only report what you know.
Of course, there’s another group of people unthinkingly passing along false news: the conspiracy theorists. As soon as the news of the bombings broke, so too did the accusations that the government was behind it, just like they were behind every other bad thing that’s ever happened anywhere.

Evidence never will sway the most hardcore conspiracy believers, and it’s really not worth it to try. The fervent acolytes of the made-up decided the moment they learned of the attack that whatever the “official story” was would be government-sponsored bunk. They proudly unfurled their false flags, passing along their Photoshopped pictures and admonitions for the “sheeple” to “wake up.” And whatever evidence you give them that there is no conspiracy will only serve as proof that there is a conspiracy, and you’re just a disinfo agent acting as a paid shill to throw them off the trail.

Fortunately, most people don’t buy into this nonsense. But as we’ve seen from recent surveys, many of us do believe that there are some conspiracies and secrets, whether they’re “the truth” about JFK, hidden research on vaccines or that one little thing about 9/11 that just doesn’t make sense. And when we see people we know falling into these traps, we have to extend a hand.

For anyone you know wavering about “the official story," step in, not with insults, but with common ground. They almost certainly don’t believe that New World Order agents, acting on HAARP-transmitted orders from the Freemasons, planted the bombs. But they might not be entirely trusting of the government, either. Which is fine, because part of being skeptical is asking hard questions about our government. But it also means accepting the answers to those questions when those answers are logical, and there's nothing falsifying them.

So if you tell your conspiracy-leaning but otherwise sensible friend that they’re simply wrong and stupid, they might nudge over to the other side. But if you talk about how it’s natural to be skeptical of what we’ve been told, especially given the shoddy reporting we’ve all seen over the last week, now you’re having a conversation, not an argument.

And when your friend brings up that video of the backpack with the red circles that looks just like the backpack that the Blackwater agent was wearing seconds before the bomb went off, you can say that it’s certainly possible, but that we don’t really have any evidence that the person carrying it was a Blackwater agent, and we have scads of evidence that Blackwater had nothing to do with the bombing, including a suspect in custody.

You can give them the information, and let them decide on their own. And they’ll probably forget the whole thing and go on about their day. You’ll have changed a mind and stopped a falsehood from going any further than it needed to. Something we should all be prepared to do the next time tragedy strikes.

by Mike Rothschild

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