Wireless Witch Hunts

In just a 5-minute span of glancing at the newspaper today I read two very different accounts about the dark side of our unfettered ability to put information out there whenever we see fit. The internet sometimes feels like a latter day Salem.
The first was about Reddit offering up an apology for its role in the “witch hunt” that followed the Boston shootings. In short, highlighting the lost and at times dangerous souls who spend time on Reddit playing at being CSI investigators and outing innocent people who had nothing to do with the Boston tragedy. Reddit at times is basically a playground in which disaffected, typically angry, bored, and paranoid people can have a field day putting out paranoid manifestos, angry rants, and play at being renegade journalists and detectives. Easy to do when you don’t have to check facts or follow protocol.
The second was far more farcial, but also problematic. An opinion piece detailing the policies of the website Yelp. The down and dirty there is that there is the question of whether participating in “advertising” on Yelp may facilitate certain kinds of reviews getting through etc. ANYONE who has ever read Yelp, TripAdvisor or any other kind of public restaurant, hotel or other sort of review know that they fall squarely in two camps. The angry, embittered reviews that are often generated from entitled folks who cannot fathom why a $75/night hotel room was not the Ritz, or the candy coated confections that talk about “Amazing hamburgers” and “Pasta that changed my life”. But overall, since the bulk of the lengthier and detailed reviews are negative, these reviews can be damaging to small businesses who count on word of mouth, and can lose new business and old customers on the basis of bad reviews from people who may simply have an ax to grind with the world in general, and have found the ultimate bully pulpit in crowd sourced reviews.
Perhaps going after a restaurant doesn’t feel like a “witch hunt” per se – but the sad upshot of the Wild West of crowd sourced reviews and pseudojournalism is that it’s open season on everyone and everything, and you can say anything you want with little fear of reprisal.
As a psychologist, crowd sourced reviews and news to me are often a bit unfiltered –and while entertaining – like listening to drunken rants in a bar, definitely do not drive my decision making or information gathering. In general, people who take the time to go on an online diatribe or speculate conspiracy theories are not always the healthiest voices and typically the voice of people who are often seeking attention, revenge, or validation. And in general, not likely to share my taste in food, hotels, or politics.
Journalism, due process, science – all of these things take time. And these processes are often getting rushed in our internet fueled, crowd sourced, noisy electronic worlds – where bad facts often trump truth in the name of ratings. Even legitimate journalistic agencies come under fire for putting out “bad facts” too soon so they can stay ahead of the game and the ratings. Bottom line – a histrionic rant is much more interesting to listen to than a reasoned argument. But we need to take a moment and become skilled consumers and listeners in this noisy world. And to teach our kids, students, and young people to do the same. History shows us that witch hunts don’t work, are dangerous, and are usually based on the ramblings of some noisy folks who are a few cards short of a deck.
The internet is our town square, where we share ideas, gossip, argue, and listen. But once upon a time, that town square and the people inhabiting it were real, we knew them, and perhaps we took a moment before saying things or believing them. Word of mouth once came out of a mouth, and not an iPhone. So before you take your afternoon stroll to the electronic town square – take a moment and be mindful. Those electronic echoes can hurt real people and real businesses.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 at 2:25 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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