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Social media can be hazardous to truth PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 November 2017 16:00

Free speech has limits.
    The classic exception frequently cited in academic discussions before the invention of the internet as an example of harmful speech undeserving of protection by the First Amendment was crying “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater and causing dangerous panic.
    In the internet age, the equivalent of “Fire!” is shouted many times every day, and often panic ensues. This happens on social media, where anyone is free to say anything—true or false, innocent or malicious, benign or harmful.
    Social media giants Facebook and Twitter are under fire in Congress for allowing their platforms to be used by Russia to influence the American presidential election with a massive disinformation campaign, but there is a telling example of the consequences of misleading social media communication much closer to home.
     The example is a story of how panic, or at least “mild hysteria,” as a police spokesman characterized it, resulted from rumors spread on social media by Port Washington High School students and some of their parents that caused more than 100 students to skip school on Oct. 27.
    The story illustrates not only the pernicious effect of bogus information broadcast by social media, but also the power of the likes of Facebook to drown out accurate information disseminated by trusted institutions.
    It started, fittingly, with social media posts by a Port High student who called himself “Mr. Yeah” on Snapchat, which led to an exchange with other students, including the comment, “I’m going to kill myself Friday night at 11:59 p.m. and the auditorium.” (Police said he meant to type “at” the auditorium.)
    The post was brought to the attention of school administrators and police, who tracked down Mr. Yeah, arrested him and put him in the county jail.
    Authorities quickly determined the threat was not legitimate. High school Principal Eric Burke said that based on the police investigation it was clear that the incident amounted to “a student being inappropriate with social media.”
    Nevertheless, both school and police authorities took pains to allay any fears the incident might have raised. The Port Washington Police Department issued a press release and the high school sent an email to parents, both messages clearly explaining the situation and reporting the fact that the student who was responsible for it had been arrested and was in jail.
    This well-handled outreach to the community occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 25. Overnight, rumors and statements that seemed deliberately false, including made-up claims that police had arrested the wrong person and that the culprit who made threats was on the loose, spread over social media. By Thursday morning the high school and police department had to deal with parents demanding to know if it was safe to send their children to school. The high school principal sent another email to parents stating flatly: “There were no threats to students or our school.”
    Yet more than 100 students, about 15% of the student body, did not show up for classes on Friday.
    Police Captain Michael Keller said officers interviewed some of the students who started or passed along rumors on social media. “They admitted they didn’t know what they were talking about,” he said. “A lot of this was caused by students using social media, which got parents worked up, and all of a sudden we had a bit of mild hysteria on our hands.”
    Though this may seem like small stuff at a time when false information spread on the internet can destroy reputations and skew elections, it is a vivid display of how easily irresponsible use of social media can become a negative force.
    Social media, whose place in society is now about as certain as death and taxes, are not going away, but their empowering of misinformation has to be addressed.
    Facebook and Twitter have some culpability, especially in allowing their networks to be vulnerable to propaganda, but so too do the users of social media, including those who without malicious intent share the misinformation, rumors and the concocted false narratives that inspired the term fake news.
    The reason for the existence of the internet is to inform, and yet much of the responsibility for the damage to truth caused by social media falls on users who are poorly informed, gullible and unable or unwilling to separate fact from fiction.
    It has been suggested that the energetic exchange by the Port students of wild rumors born in fantasy rather than any semblance of fact was an internet-era ploy by teenagers to facilitate playing hooky. That is almost a comforting explanation; after all, scheming to find a legal way to legally skip school has been a time-honored tradition for many generations of students.
    But we have to ask: What were the adults thinking? Concern about their children’s safety is certainly understandable, but did more than 100 sets of parents really buy into rumors that had no more reason to be taken seriously than that they appeared on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat?

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