Gossip, Rumors, and the Internet

Probably like your town, ours has a local news website with a Facebook link.  Anyone can post to it, provided they obey a few simple rules against profanity and personal attacks.  It has expanded the reach and impact of the old word of mouth gossip circuits.  To give it due credit, it is very efficient at getting out the word about events and issues.  But it is rife with speculation, unverified and unverifiable assertions, and rhetorical questions that not so subtly challenge the integrity of community policies and decision makers.  In other words, it’s a lightning fast rumor mill.

Rumors and gossip.  They are a yoked team, powerful and unrestrained.  St. James understood that even in his day, which was a few years before mine, when he observed that, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.  For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.   From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (From the Letter of James, chapter 3)

Rumors are weird creatures.  Back in high school, that Pandora’s box of rumors, I wondered how they got started and how fast they could get around.  So I tried my own social experiment.  I don’t remember the details, but I said something to a friend in confidence.  It was made up on the spot, a salacious “fact” about a famous entertainer of the day.  “Did you know that xxx was xxx, I heard it, it’s true.”  It took only a few hours for it to come back to me in exaggerated form.  That was over fifty years ago.  I was smugly stunned, and the lesson has remained with me ever since.  Consider what we have now.

Our community website with its Facebook link is an asset, and I wouldn’t want it to go away.  But as a news source, which it claims to be, it lacks any pretension to journalistic objectivity or editorial oversight.  Our much maligned local paper, with its reputation for slipshod reporting and difficulty with spelling, actually does a fairly good job of rooting out the facts and reporting them with editorial discretion.  Reporting on the local news website, on the other hand, is the product of interested citizens offering their observations and opinions, as they would over a backyard fence or in a coffee group, which is not bad, but it broadcasts unrefined, seldom checked information to an entire electronic audience rather than to a few friends.  What used to take a few hours to make it around town is now accomplished in seconds.  Thankfully, it tends to be reasonably innocent in what gets published.  Egregious errors are often corrected by comments from others, but not before unreflective opinions and counter opinions have been posted.  The point is that the speed with which information and misinformation is distributed to a huge audience is as fast as clicking send.  So is the potential for causing harm.

If local websites like ours tend to be self correcting, which I think they are, what can be said about mass media sites claiming to be news sources but engaged in deliberate manipulation of information to promote a particular political agenda?  They trade in rumor, unverified and unverifiable “facts,” and genuine data contorted to make it fit.  It’s plain old propaganda right out of 1938.  Some try to shrug it off by dismissing them as mere venues for entertainment, or by claiming that one so called news source is offset by another so called news source.  That’s begging the question.  To be blunt, they are in the business of rumor mongering.  They have no self correcting mechanism.  They have sowed disrespect for journalism while influencing a great many people who are disinterested in verifying what has been said.  What they do reaches entire populations in seconds, and there is no taking it back once it’s out there.

No one will turn back the calendar to a time of more reliable news sources.  There never was such a time.  It’s just that slower, more localized news sources, including the backyard fence, were easier to check, and influenced fewer people.  It would be refreshing to witness real journalists standing up for the value of reporting that has a higher standard of objectivity and accuracy.  One can hope.  In the meantime, adhering to the words of Peggy Noonan, we need to practice the habit of trust but verify, or as Hillary Clinton rephrased it, distrust and verify.  I guess both are appropriate.  I have no doubt that readers of these articles already do that.  I have little expectation that it will become common practice.

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