“By the way, this is off the record, Monica.”
The corporate director looked right at me, and I almost laughed.
Is he serious?
We were a small group of young Seattleites expecting to hear candid advice on leadership, not sensitive, newsworthy information. But that’s not what was funny.
What was funny is that he said this only to me.
He probably didn’t know that my friend Nikki, sitting a few seats away, had gotten more page views on her most recent blog post than I get in 10 of my columns. Or that Dan, close by, had just written an essay shared thousands of times on social media and linked to in dozens of places.
But he must have known that if he’d said something explosive, any one of us could have sent its shock waves to the world. There wasn’t one journalist in that room, but potentially, a dozen.
So everyone, please. Enough with the nostalgia. Enough with the surprise when someone’s smartphone pic makes the news, and with those naive, clueless generalizations about how “Twitter” believes this and “Reddit” thinks that.
It’s time to level up. It’s time to accept that anybody’s voice can be as powerful as anybody else’s.
Then it’s time to insist that everyone who shares information takes responsibility for the information they share.
The reason is obvious. Bad information hurts, no matter where it comes from.
It wasn’t true, but nobody checked. People shared the rumor on reflex, distracting attention from facts, sparking senseless speculation and—worst of all—making the student’s family the targets of cruelty and rage.
The next morning, as the bomber’s true identity spread, most of the thousands who shared the damaging information did nothing more than delete their posts. As if they themselves didn’t cause the harm. As if their complicity couldn’t be helped.
There are two truths we need to spread before we can fix this.
The first is that sharing is serious.
I know. There are a lot of baby-animal videos and corny quotes out there. But there are also dishonest political posts, baiting, sensationalized headlines and wild, stupid or wicked rumors that are too wild, stupid and wicked to be true.
“When people post slanderous, malevolent lies, if you forward them without censure, then you are abetting slanderous, malevolent lies,” Slate’s Scott Huler wrote in June after a friend shared a viral 9/11 conspiracy theory he could have easily disproved.
“Seeing something vaguely worth wondering about (if you don’t think about it too hard), then ‘share,’ is a losing strategy,” he said. “You’re not allowed to turn off your judgment, even for a second. You’re not allowed to shrug and say, ‘Who knows?’ and let someone else worry about it.”
“You share it, you stand behind it.”
Now to that second truth: The sharing public is not a mob.
A mob is defined by four things: its primal, reckless actions; a lack of accountability once those actions have run their course; a false unity that obscures the people who are part of it; and a sense that whatever it does, it’s pointless to try to stop it.
People who share are not a mob. And even when groups of us behave like one, applying the concept only excuses our actions.
In a world all but ruled by information, that’s just going to hurt.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately because I’m part of a group that drafted the first update in 18 long years to the Society of Professional Journalists’ influential Code of Ethics.
Professional journalists expect scrutiny that members of the public won’t. But we’re all part of one information society, contributors to a larger, chatty whole. The more responsibly we share, the better off we’ll all be.
Next time you see someone spread bad information without apology, don’t chalk it up to “the Internet.” Tell that person you don’t appreciate it, and defend the pursuit of truth.
Then those who would control information should know who they’re dealing with.
- Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times and concentrates on living with technology in the Northwest. She is currently vice chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee. She may be reached on e-mail at mguzman@seattletimes,com, on Twitter @moniguzman or on Facebook.