Lies, damned lies and social media
Proving a lie does indeed travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, Hurricane Sandy cooked up something of a social media Frankenstorm this week.
You can’t handle spot the truth
With 10 #sandy pics being uploaded to Instagram every second, the onset of the storm saw much earnest talk of a new moment for citizen journalism – some even declared it would be the photo-sharing service’s Arab Spring. Blimey.
Such pomposity was, however, swiftly skewered as it became apparent that many of the pictures were having more than an antique filter applied to them courtesy of our old friend, Mr Photoshop.
No Stock Exchange under water. No beached seal in Manhattan. No wave threatening to sweep the Statue of Liberty off her plinth.
And as quickly as these rumours spread, they were quashed. Swiftly followed by much outrage, a mass of mea culpas and a handful of cat-related parodies.
In many ways the episode perfectly encapsulates social media phenomena. So what meaning should we take from it?
First, narrative matters. In social channels (as in life) we believe what we want to believe. The stories gained credence because they fitted in with the over-arching narrative of the storm – devastation, havoc and each story being more shocking than the last. In that context, a shark in the Hudson fits rather well, doesn’t it?
Second, God love the contrary nature of social channels. The fact that rumours were disproved as quickly (even savagely) as they were shows the maturity of the medium. It demonstrated that online communities are actually pretty good at self-policing.
Third, and perhaps most important, the Frankenstorm revealed the blurring of the line between what is authentic and what is fake, which I think will present challenges for all kinds of organisations as they communicate. The benefits of immediacy often come at the cost of accuracy. Which rather begs the question – if we start questioning the authenticity of one thing we see online, will we start questioning the authenticity of all of it?