Online flames spread faster than a wildfire (column)
London Community News
Councillor Sandy White recently wrote a column for this newspaper about the amount of misinformation and rumours she perceives are circulated in the community.
In a nutshell, she encouraged people to carefully read and listen to the information presented to them, consider the sources and then believe only about half of it.
While editing her column, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Not at her words, but some amusing — and troubling — memories they evoked.
At the last newspaper I worked at, I wrote a bogus story for an edition coming out on April’s Fools day. The premise for the article was that in order to curb the vandalism (a big issue at the time) in the downtown core, city officials decided to build a multi-million dollar series of tunnels underneath it.
Keep in mind, the byline was attributed to April Phool and sources cited in the story included Skaams & Associates vice-president Shaedy Deelings and the owner of Five Dollar Store franchise named Ivant Urmoney. To avoid any confusion, the article ended with an Editor’s Note stating outright this was an April Fools joke.
The next day, I was listening to a regional radio station that occasionally picked up some of our stories off the web (without proper credit I might add) and they’re running the downtown tunnel story in their news broadcast.
The morning newsperson must have just scanned the headline and first couple of paragraphs and went with it. I had to call the radio station to let them know and they were forced to retract their story on air.
Coincidentally, the reason I added the Editor’s Note at the bottom, was because of the fallout from another April Fool’s story I wrote for a previous newspaper.
This one took place just after smoking was banned in bars many years ago. I wrote about how the city had decided to allow smoking in local establishments for two 30-minute periods each day because they had invested in a “smoke sucking” machine from a company owned by the nephew of the mayor.
A few dead giveaways were the byline attributed to Justin Tyme, a health unit representative who was quoted as saying smoking was unhealthy was named
Noah Guff and the name of the mayor’s nephew who was awarded the city contract was Nepo Tism. We didn’t add an Editor’s Note at the bottom of this story.
For the next couple of days, I received angry calls from bar owners because people kept showing up during the two times I had mentioned it was OK to smoke.
They refused to believe the article was a joke and lit up their cigarettes, which placed the bar owner in a compromised position because of the no-smoking bylaw. I think one establishment even pulled its advertising for a couple of editions.
Despite the furor, I was a little flattered to later find out that a few teachers in the city were using the article to teach students about the importance of reading critically and thoroughly, rather than just believing everything they read or heard.
The moral of this story — other than I need to stop writing April Fool’s articles — is that it’s not just school children who need to learn this lesson.
Pay attention to the source. What does this person have to gain, now and in the future, by sharing this information? How did they find out? Is more than one side or source presented when the topic is controversial? Does the headline match the content or was it put there to manipulate you into reading the article?
And if this is the case, is it OK in the context of the information presented? Is it an opinion or news piece? There should be clear lines between the two.
If you’re not sure about the information, err on the side of caution and don’t pass it on. Given the immediacy of today’s online communication tools, falsehoods can spread faster than a wildfire and the flames are just as difficult, if not impossible to douse.
Tracey Duguay is the editor of London Community News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org