Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The New Mob Rule

One of the impressive things about the current age of technology we're in is how quickly information can get around.

One of the even more impressive things is how quickly misinformation can get around.

Let's look at examples of both.

First, let's take a look at an article on Digg today. For those of you who don't know, digg is an extremely popular "social bookmarking" site. People can submit stories and also vote for (or "digg") other stories that they find interesting. An algorithm on the site determines which are the most popular (I assume via some function of how quickly an article receives diggs and the number of those diggs, but I don't know the details) and puts them on the "front page". When an article makes the front page, the site in question gets absolutely hammered with visitors, because a lot of casual users like myself only browse the front page to visit interesting things.

Today featured an article about a small town Snohomish. The citizens of Snohomish love their high school football team. Even more, they love the tradition of firing off their cannon before football games and after touchdowns.

Well, unfortunately a student got badly hurt by the cannon some time ago. A member of the high school ROTC, the student was part of the team that fired off the cannon, and it exploded, almost taking off his leg. At one point it looked like they were going to have to amputate his leg entirely.

Based on the article, it looks like the kid didn't get a lot of sympathy from the town. In fact, he actually got threats.

It would appear that, afraid they might lose the tradition of firing off the cannon due to safety concerns, the town went a little nuts. Some folks threatened to "blow off his other leg", and a collection to help pay the steep medical bills (including putting a titanium rod in his injured leg) yielded a sum of $200, nearly all of that coming from other schools.

Enter digg. Once the article got on the front page, the enterprising commentors discovered the school's football website. An innocent poll there asks visitors how many games they plan to attend.

So far over 100,000 (and rising fast) have replied "none".

Will any of this do any good? Who knows. Is the article biased? Probably. I would've liked to have seen more reaction from kids in his class.

But is it funny to see that many people (along with, I'm sure, more than a couple of scripts doing the voting) visit a little homegrown school website and express their displeasure through a pointless poll? Yes.

Second, let's talk about internet hoaxes. If you have an email account (that should include one or two of you), you know that people love to circulate chain letters containing erroneous information. These may include a gent from Nigeria claiming he wants to send you money. These may include people encouraging you to buy a junk stock.

They also may include completely falsified rewritings of history for the purpose of a political agenda. An example of this would be the Oliver North "testimony" which claims that Ollie identified Osama Bin Laden as "the most evil person alive".

Osama Bin Laden is evil. I'm not disputing that. But what is easily disputable is the testimony. The blasted thing was circulated so much that the US Senate even thought to include a refutation of the entire thing on their website.

But that's the internet for you. Perhaps for better or worse, the internet allows us to see "news" now already filtered through the lenses we prefer. There are plenty of bloggers and "news" websites out there that will tailor to your political views, whatever they may be. That's nice because it is often pleasant to read things that we already agree with.

But it's a heck of a lot more challenging... and more important... to read points of view we don't agree with. And as more and more people turn to these alternative news sources (and for the love of all that is holy, chain emails should never be considered "news"), the responsibility falls on us to do our fact checking.

Frankly, that's not something at which people have proven particularly proficient.

Update: It appears the poll has been taken down. Too bad, I would've liked to see just how high the count got.

Update 2: It should be noted that was on this story first. Credit where credit is due.


tim said...

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Jay Logan said...

huh...the americas got a web site...?(wow)yes i was listening/reading, and all i have to say is:AMEN BRUTHUR!!! some people...sheesh...

Anonymous said... was there before digg =/

robustyoungsoul said...

You are correct... I ought to have noted that. Not a reader myself, but strolling through the comments it also looks like they were the first to start providing scripts.

Chandra said...

I really enjoyed your writing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wait... you're saying you can get email on the interwebseses now? When the hell did THAT happen?