Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Only You Can Prevent Digital Wildfires

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Only You Can Prevent Digital Wildfires

Article excerpt

Social media can rapidly spread dubious and dangerous information. We need to build some firewalls to contain the risk.

In 1938, thousands of Americans famously mistook a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel "War of the Worlds" for a genuine news broadcast. Police stations were flooded with calls from citizens who believed the United States had been invaded by Martians.

It is difficult to imagine a radio play causing such a misunderstanding today, when people can quickly check the latest headlines on their smartphones. But the Internet, like radio in 1938, is a relatively young medium. Is it conceivable that a misleading post on social media could spark a comparable panic?

We can think of this possibility as a "digital wildfire." In a hyperconnected world, information can travel with unprecedented speed and reach. The benefits of new communication technologies are many and obvious; the potential for pitfalls informs one of the "risk cases" explored in the World Economic Forum's Global Risks 2013 report, based on expert input about which risks could manifest themselves over the next 10 years.

Social media can rapidly spread information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative. In the summer of 2012, for example, a Twitter user impersonating the Russian interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, tweeted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had been "killed or injured"; crude oil prices rose by over one dollar before traders realized that Assad was alive and well. In September 2012, protests over an anti-Islamic film uploaded onto YouTube killed dozens of people.

In October 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, news organizations such as CNN were fooled by an anonymous Twitter user who tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange trading floor was under three feet of water. In this case, the false rumor was quickly put right by other Twitter users, demonstrating that social media can often self-correct. Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine two kinds of scenario in which a digital wildfire could cause havoc.

Firstly, in fast-changing situations -- such as when a natural disaster is unfolding or social tensions are running high -- damage could be done before a correction can come. The real-world equivalent is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater; even if the lack of fire quickly becomes apparent, people may already have been crushed in a scramble for the exit.

Secondly, we can imagine situations in which false information feeds into an existing world view, making it harder for corrections to penetrate. The November 2012 clashes in Gaza, in which both Israel and Hamas used Twitter extensively, show the growing importance of social media in conflict situations. …

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