Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pathology Induced Paranoia


All day yesterday, during lectures and then while studying with some friends, I couldn't help but to refresh the  thread on reddit that had the continuous updating of the manhunt in Boston. Most of you are probably aware of reddit, and if not that site, other internet forum boards.

In no way am I the first to reflect on this stark change in how many people receive their news, but I'll throw in my two cents concerning what this means for the future for us as a culture, but also for main stream media outlets.

Last summer we saw the shooting during the Batman premier in Colorado (Huff Post referencing redditgood concise article about reddit's coverage) and the subsequent coverage paradigm shift from cable news to personal accounts and direct police scanner updates on user submitted content derivation sites (i.e., reddit). Of course, there are also links to television station streams, local and national, other "official" news outlets, but also other social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. As has been the case in the last few large tragedies, someone starts a thread and begins to aggregate links and information as it comes in. Naturally, skeptics will say that this is a very dangerous format, as early information is often wrong, especially when it is taken straight from police scanner broadcasts. Well, as we've seen so much in the cable news arena, they aren't exactly careful to fully vet their resources, and even worse, once a mistake (or lie) is broadcast, they can run as many retraction statements as they like, but they can't take it back. What I've found to really appreciate about the format the forum provides is that it has been customary to go back and strikethrough the erroneous statement, and add explanation of what happened. Compare this version of information delivery to watching cable news where they have to fill every second with compelling programming, which more often than not, leads to pointless and silly interviews and speculation.

I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist, but I do not trust mainstream news, in almost any form (especially commercial news, with stakeholders and profit margins to maintain), to provide me an unbiased narrative. Some outlets are kooko conservative and some are lib-tardish, and we all know which outlets fall under which category -- fine. However, no matter what specific demographic's eyeballs they are fighting for, they are all fighting for the same thing: larger market share, which leads to larger ad revenue, which leads to content delivery which aims to draw attention, not properly inform. This isn't news, obviously, but it may be news to the stakeholders when this format of news delivery fades into oblivion.

It may not be reddit that puts Fox and CNN out of business, but most people in my generation and younger feel as I do about mainstream media, and rightfully so. But the real question is whether or not crowd sourced news delivery will be able to provide a higher level of fidelity when it comes to the facts. A random user of a website, who has no journalistic training, much less an obligation or any accountability cannot be expected to perform the same as a (note, I say "good" journalist here, as my faith in actual journalists to act with any obligation to fact or accept accountability is also very low, even though I realize much of this is due to network pressure to err on the side of sensational, the end consequence is the same) good journalist should conduct him or herself.

I also am wary of individuals with malignant intentions when it comes to information dissemination; this could be official (government, corporate) disinformation, criminal intent, or just your classic 4chan neckbeard trying to stir the pot for amusement. This is the other side of the coin that allows blatant falsehoods to persist. I would argue that because there is an active component and constant communication, if there is something false posted or written, others with firsthand knowledge can refute the false claims. If I'm watching CNN, I have to rely on the same people who lied to me in the first place to put things right.

This past week also saw some of the downsides that can come from people that fancy themselves as a modern day Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew. Numerous false identifications were made, which of course, led to Facebook pages being besieged by wishes of ill will. Before the FBI released images of the suspects in the Boston bombing, there were numerous threads with people providing their own analysis of available footage and still images. This is not, in my opinion, closely related to the capability of a forum to provide a higher level of news delivery, but is indicative of the impatient tendencies that reside in us all. It would happen on the internet whether or not these live update threads were being created and maintained as events unfold.  

The bottom line is this: when a large news event happens I no longer turn turn on the television, nor do I go to an explicitly all news website (the exception is the BBC site if the event is off US soil) but for now, I go to reddit. In the future, who knows what forum will be available, but it won't be anything CNN, FOX, MSNBC or their ilk have to offer.

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