In Egypt today we see the possibility of Social Change as demanded by many of the People following a lengthy pseudo-democratic dictatorship. We see this because as well the mainstream media, many on the Internet – especially on Twitter and Facebook – are sharing updates of events on the ground. Our trusted circle our friends are sharing updates from others who they trust, or at least we hope they trust, before we update.
As Egypt is blocking its Mobile Networks and the Internet in order to “maintain order”, how can we trust who is sharing what with us, when it was sent, where it was sent from and if there is any sinister motivation behind the sharing of certain information.
Mark Pesce said in his Keynote Address to linux.conf.au yesterday:
When we see our friends smoking, we want to smoke. We want to fit in. We want to be cool. That’s what it feels like inside our minds, but really, we just want to imitate. We see something, and we want to do it.
So we retweet, share links, add commentary. Be part of the in-crowd, join in on the conversation. But what are the limits to this mimicry? Pesce further says:
one needs to choose one’s friends carefully…They are puppet masters, pulling your strings, even if they are blissfully unaware of the power they have over you – or the power that you have over them.
And here is the rub with relationships we have built on twitter or Facebook. How well do we really know some of the people we retweet or share information from? How much trust have they earned that we sub-conciously retweet their every important tweet?
Recently we’ve had an example where in London where someone tweeted that they were “Shooting” an Ad for a fizzy drink company in Oxford Circus. Within minutes, people were asking if there was a Gun Alert, and not long after that the question mark had been dropped and soon enough people were being told stay inside as there may be terrorists.
Since the events recently in Tunisia we’ve had every man and his dog in the Media; Demand, Social or Otherwise, trying to associate technologies as diverse as Facebook and Wikileaks to the “revolution”. There’s no doubt they had some impact on the final moments of said revolution, and just as we saw in the London example and are presently seeing in Egypt, they are perfect ways of quickly communicating information, correct or otherwise, not just one-to-one as traditional communications like the Phone or SMS is, but to the world.
Instead of trying to claim that this is “the first Facebook or twitter revolution” perhaps we should instead be questioning the nature of some of the information which is being shared. We should be asking where’s the curation? Where’s the verification? How far are you stretching your trust? At what point do you stop mimicing the behaviour of the members of your Social Graph?
Returning to the situation in London last week, it’s important to note from the tweets that many of them were mentioning (adding an @) reputable Media organisations to alert them of the “threat” going down(and even criticising them for not picking up the story). Yet none of those organisations joined in the self-replicating orgy of misinformation. And if I check my own retweet feed in twitter just now, I note the prevalence of some of the Mainstream News organisations like CNN, The Guardian and Al-Jazeera. Perhaps it is that trust is rising to the top or maybe the attempts at blocking the internet have successfully reduced the amount of on the ground information which I recall so well from Iran and Mumbai during those terrible days.
It would be remiss of me to acknowledge that some people haven’t learned the requirement to trust sources or verify them before passing on Chinese Whispers. Especially after the experience of Mumbai in 2009. But in general, and as Mr. Pesce wrote: we have a great
facility for mimesis…as broadly flexible as the one we have for language
So my challenge is then to decide how can I climb away from this mimicry? And rather than pointing fingers at what the Media and others should be doing, asking, how can I step back from what is going on in the World and assess the source before joining in? When I retweet something on Twitter just because it looks like something I *believe* in, am I any different from the Children in last weeks This American Life who were lapping up the pre-Reagan propaganda on Grenada or the locked on Fianna Faíl voters in Ireland who will still cast a ballot for them in the upcoming General Election as if the last three years never existed?
As we sit in our comfortable chairs watching the events of Egypt unfold on Cable TV and in Social Media we need to forge our own revolution of trust. As Mainstream media rushes to embrace and attempt to dominate news on Social Media, it is beholden on those of us who use Social Media regularly to better validate the information we are sharing, apply some critical thinking to what we are reading, ensure we are getting the full story and then share the knowledge to those who trust us.
Continue with our mimicry and we better get used to even more Chinese Whispers in our circles of trust.