Flying fast and loose with the truth

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the hours after the Japanese earthquake, someone posted on Twitter that the creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, had been killed and the news quickly spread.

But like reports of Mark Twain’s death in 1897, Tajiri’s ‘death’ was greatly exaggerated. The news was picked up by gaming blogs and websites prompting Nintendo, maker of the Pokemon games, to respond in a statement. Satoshi Tajiri was alive and unharmed, as were all of Nintendo’s employees.

Tajiri himself updated his status on Facebook to reassure everyone and to correct assertions that he was an employee of Nintendo. “Dear Hummingbirds, what’s this nonsense about me being dead? Also, I don’t work at Nintendo Japan, I’m the CEO of Game Freak (everybody is fine). More importantly, if you can, help Japan,” he wrote.

What motivated the source of this hoax? Was it an anti-social reflex or a silly prank? Whatever it was, it represents a dark side to social media that some users are motivated enough to tell lies about someone’s death. Social media is excellent at breaking news but it is also very good at spreading wrong information.

In another recent case, a young Wellington Twitter user alerted organisations including the New Zealand Herald and the Asia New Zealand Foundation that interpreters were being asked to volunteer their services to cater for a large group of internationals who had been transferred to the Capital in the recent aftermath of the February Christchurch earthquake. She said the volunteer interpreters were being asked to meet at Te Papa at 5pm that day.

News reporters were soon sensing a story and on the phone to me at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. On closer examination, the story turned out to be that the young tweeter had been given the information by her mother who taught at an English language school. This was all good and well except that the call for interpreters had been for the day before.

This was not a malicious tweet but it was like the first, a waste of everyone’s time. There are similarities between those two examples and the fight that CNN found itself in over its live coverage of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami in what has come to be known as the “Godzilla incident”.

As you can read here on Mashable, CNN news anchor Rosemary Church was accused of laughing and joking about the disaster in Japan and either her or her interviewee were thought to have made a light-hearted reference to Godzilla, the famed Japanese B-grade monster.

All of this would have been justified had the source of the complaint on Twitter heard correctly. But he got it wrong. Godzilla was never mentioned although the American eyewitness she was talking to did make reference to scenes “almost like a monster movie”. And Church never laughed once.

You can read the transcript here and watch the video at Mediaite.

In view of these examples, nobody in their right mind would indiscriminately equate Twitter with the truth. Like any other tool in our hands, social media gets used in good ways and bad ways, used wisely, informatively and humorously or used foolishly, wrongly and maliciously.

But after an afternoon watching news tweets roll out and become amplified, about a new tsunami threat, and then seeing those tweets get cancelled out when it proved to be a false alarm, I was strangely encouraged.

Many of us care enough about information to update old information (thankfully, no second tsunami), to correct wrong information and to challenge malicious information. It’s called the great social media self-correcting organism. Check, challenge, corroborate, confirm and verify. The truth doesn’t always come out on top but I’m glad to know it matters for many of us using social media. In the meantime, be careful out there.

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