In the wake of the Connecticut mass murders, the Oregon mass murders, the Colorado mass murders, and several others, social networks and news outlets disseminate information of all sorts. It touches media consumers, informs them, and misinforms them. In this case, there is a flurry of activity which revolves around post-hoc identification of common factors among the perpetrators of tragedies such as these. Unfortunately, the predictive power of such factors is very low. Some mass killers are online gamers. Well, there are 500 million online gamers globally (McGonigal, 2010). Online gaming is a predictor of all sorts of traits: problem solving (eg. McGonigal, 2010; Werbach, 2011), enterprise and leadership (Ito, 2011), and even surgery (Lecher, 2012).
But wait, there’s more. Mental health, developmental disabilities, religious and political stances, and formative social statuses have all been indicted by public opinion as causes for these unspeakable dramatic losses of innocent life. I think one of the most damaging media impacts on our society is what I’ll call the big false reveal. The big false reveal is illustrated by a breaking news story that cites an authority who is interpreted as making a big wave with a new “fact”. This may be a research based revelation about cholesterol, a rumor about the president, or an emerging detail about the perpetrator of a crime. This big reveal, if it turns out to be unwarranted, unqualified, or incomplete, can be seen as false. The media will often retract or correct the reveal later on, but this will typically make for a smaller wave. Think of the waves that follow a tidal wave. They diminish in impact. The public’s understanding of a situation was more impacted by the sensational initial story than the correction, and corrections must be disseminated to the masses for years to come.
The most recent example of this is the media’s coverage of the Connecticut shooter having Asperger’s Syndrome. The implication being made here is that because person A has condition B, then condition B is correlated with the actions and traits of person A. The follow-ups to these initial stories will be mitigated by experts and media coverage will apologize for its missteps by reporting corrective stories.
The problem is with how the public processes alleged truths in social dialogue… slowly. Celebrity death hoaxes, research that is false and un-replicated, mis-attributed quotes, and of course all the fact-checking issues from politics are some of the strongest forces influencing public opinion. We hear these ideas described as “common sense” and while they are argued, a proportion of the public tunes out of the discussion. They’ve been informed already, in the first wave.
There is a positive side to this: with a climate of public mistrust for the internet and media, there is a division of power: those who use fake facts (some folks even lampoon the powers of fact facts) to influence public policy and social dialogue; and those who exercise the powers to fact-check the latter group. Both groups have power.
Our contributions to society are based upon the powers we wield and what we choose to do with that power. If we want to use it for good, we need to be fact checkers. We need to look for complex dynamics as causative factors for both tragedy and triumph, and reject misinformation whenever possible. The problem with mob reasoning is there are countless people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with psychiatric and developmental disabilities, with enmeshed or contentious family situations, who were all indicted for potential murder by association last week. We need to quit buying into post-hoc speculation and recognize that one of the functions of citizenship is to seek truth in dialogue and evidence in public policy.