Limiting What We Post Online: Freedom of Speech vs. Reckless Reporting

While appearing on last week’s On the Media, Craig Silverman, the founder of rumor debunking website Emergent, discussed how it was important for journalists to separate legitimate facts from unconfirmed rumors. In his segment, Silverman noted that merely deciding to include a rumor in a known source of news lends it a level of credibility and that legitimate journalists have an obligation to create a clear distinction between fact and fiction. While I agree with Silverman’s statement about the importance of fact checking in professional journalism, I would add that in an age in which participatory journalism has such a massive effect on the way information reaches an audience that this obligation to the facts should extend to any individual intending to disseminate what they claim is unabashed facts to a large audience.

After watching the first episode of Black Mirror and reading through The Circle, I can’t help but wonder whether or not participatory journalism is a positive force in the digital age. On the one hand you have situations like the Arab Spring Uprisings where average citizens are able to circumvent the information barriers put in place by oppressive regimes. However, on the opposite side of the spectrum are the fringe conspiracy theorists and wannabe fire-starters, who now possess the news gathering and audience garnering capabilities of major news organizations, but lack both the ability to understand  the information they have gathered and the judgment required to assess whether or not such information needs to be released.

The first episode of Black Mirror “National Anthem,” features a deranged artist using the public’s access to and abuse of information to humiliate a major political figure. On the surface the artist appears to ultimately be the villain in the episode. He was the one who kidnapped the princess and demanded that the British PM pork a…..pork, (sorry couldn’t resist). Even though the artist is the catalyst for the events in the episode the only reason the situation escalated to such a critical point was because of the online community’s reckless use of the limited information that was given to them.

Putting aside the woes of fictional prime ministers and their pigs for a moment, it is important to recognize the real world instances in which faulty online reporting lead to the mutilation of the truth. To view one particularly frightening instance of online misreporting one need look no further than the complete fictionalization of the murder of DeAndre Joshua.

Joshua’s body had been found by the authorities in Ferguson Missouri the day after Officer Darren Wilson’s acquittal. He had been shot in the head and had his body partially set on fire. Despite the limited amount of information surrounding the circumstances of his death the online rumor mill immediately began presenting the narrative the Joshua was somehow linked with the trial. The most popular of these rumors held that he was a witness at the trial and had been murdered by protesters because of his testimony. This rumor spread despite the fact that Joshua had absolutely nothing to do with the trial and even if he had been a witness it would have been impossible for anyone not involved with the court proceedings to have gained this information. However, despite this logical impossibility the misreporting of Joshua’s death lead to his murder being used as a way of demonizing those who protested the initial grand jury decision.

We hold major news organizations to a certain standard of truthfulness because the level of reach and credibility they possess can be very easily abused. However, as we gain the capability to reach a broad audience, it is equally as important to hold ourselves to the same standards of truthfulness and responsibility.

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