The devastation in Mumbai has been top-of-mind and top-of-the-news over the last few days – with good reason. It's also been the hottest trending topic on Twitter and covered widely as the latest disaster to be live broadcasted via tweet.
Sadly, the people writing about how cool it is that people are live tweeting the events in Mumbai are missing a huge point. What's happening now -- and what is happening in Mumbai -- is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than communicating via Twitter. It’s bigger than just reading blogs. This is where social media grows up.
Social media is providing the ability to report and take in unfiltered news in a more direct way than ever before possible and we’re doing it on a mass scale. It's no longer just a toy for early adopters and Internet nerds; it's taking its place as an influencer far beyond technology. There is, however, a downside: there’s very little way to know what is true and what is rumor. As fellow ZDNet-er Michael Krigsman said to me the night, "we're trading off potential accuracy for immediacy."
He's right. On one hand, social media shows the wisdom of crowds while at the same time demonstrates the reactionary failures of the crowd.
One example: Do a Twitter Search for the hashtag #mumbai and you'll find thousands of tweets from folks near the site of the tragedy as well as folks in other countries who are offering support. People are sharing locations where blood is needed, police activity that they are witnessing, and the health status of their family and friends. This is good, minus one little point in there – the police activity. These updates have begotten seemingly urgent warnings from users reporting that the government of India is asking people to stop reporting on police movement (that includes Twitter users, bloggers and television stations) due to the fear of the terrorists using the tools to glean information. Those not tweeting for the omission of police details are calling it a hoax.
Is it so far-fetched to believe that terrorists could be tracking Twitter or social media sites as part of their overall intelligence efforts? The U.S. Army doesn't seem to think so. Last month it was broadly covered that the U.S. Army issued a report in which it claimed Twitter could be used as a terrorist tool. Many mocked this concept but I believe that mockery shows a bit of ignorance as to how any site or online communications tool could be effectively leveraged for evil – as demonstrated by cyber warfare. And look at how many articles and business decisions have stemmed from a 140-character thought over the last two years. It's not so shocking that this technology can be used for evil as well as good.
My point isn’t to determine whether or not terrorists can use social media to get a leg up on their attacks. My point is that we have individuals running amok with information and we have no way of knowing if what is reported via user-generated social media is true. And in situations like the response to the Mumbai attacks, this presents bona fide danger. Remember the "roving gang" rumors that spread and created panic after Hurricane Katrina? This chaos was aided during a time when electronic communications were down. If social media had been as prevalent as it is now, it might've been worse.
Some cynics might say, “Jen, we’ve had this issue with mainstream news media for years. Yellow journalism?” To me, social media presents greater risks, as every single person with Internet access now has the power to report. And with such surges of information our filters for discerning truth from sensationalism are cluttered.
Beyond sensationalism, social media can be wrongfully leveraged as a fear tactic or a platform for hidden agendas. With most social networks there are no immediate content controls. An example of this is the Wikipedia page covering the Mumbai attacks. Impressive that the page was created so quickly, but it demonstrates the lack of controls I mentioned a minute ago. For a short time on Wednesday night, this is the only information that appeared on the page:
As social media grows to take on the issues of the world beyond the bubble of Silicon Valley, we early adopters need to consider how to balance the flood of information. This goes back to the age-old argument of the ethics of journalists vs. bloggers and their ethics, but it now extends to every person. We need to take what's happening during the Mumbai tragedy and create an example of what to do and what not to do. While some controls are needed, one of the biggest benefits of social media is its transparency and freestyle communication, so is it even possible to control it at this point? Perhaps the train has left the station. Social media is complementing traditional media, and while this is new and exciting now, it's going to boom in the next few years. As the communications increase so will the risks of fallacies. We owe it to ourselves to find the balance between excess communication and truth.
Thanks to Krigsman for the Wikipedia screen shot – and for lighting a fire under me to write this in the first place.