Over the span of the last two weeks we have witnessed both the power and the folly of new media.
The blogosphere, twitterverse and other online forums proved to be effective rapid-reaction communications tools when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. Outside Haiti, the Internet exploded with posts and tweets providing donation information, suggestions to help people search for loved ones and heartfelt entreaties to lend a helping hand. From inside Haiti survivors tweeted eyewitness accounts and offered to help locate loved ones, uploaded information to MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.
Did all this online activity dig people out from under collapsed buildings? Did it put bandages on bleeding wounds? No, of course not.
But it did provide an almost immediate platform for people to come together, share information and reach out with compassion and do what they could to help Haiti.
All this activity quickly caught the notice of major news organizations. As BBC News Monitoring Analyst Lewis MacLeod blogged:
The Twitter community in fact provided much of the early information on the crisis in the existence of what the Columbia Journalism Review called “the Haitian news vacuum”. The Los Angeles Times quickly created a list of Twitter users believed to be tweeting from Haiti and the New York Times blog The Lede began regularly updating a post with news about the quake. …Curtis Barnard, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review blog, said that nevertheless “the world owes a measure of debt to new media platforms – which will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Haiti in the days and months to come – for their assistance in facilitating the early response to this disaster”.
Then came the news – via a faked CNN page and Twitter trending – this weekend that Johnny Depp had died in Bordeaux, France as the result of a car crash. News spread quickly. Fans began tweeting “R.I.P.” messages to the star. Until a second wave of news broke – the claim was a hoax.
@tigerkite tweeted: Dear Internet, please use Google. Despite what “hip” newscasts like to say, twitter is not a news source. #johnnydepp=veryalive
@ohkaykayy delivered this warning: the internet is obviously warping peoples minds.. taking everything at face value.. #johnnydepp is not dead. the cnn article is from 2004
Nor is Depp the first. Celebrity death rumors are a dime a dozen in the online-verse. Harrison Ford, Miley Cyrus, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Britney Spears, Jeff Goldblum and Rick Astley are among the celebrities who “died” in the last year online.
The last two weeks have left me with a deep appreciation for the power of new media, and reinforced fears that as traditional media struggles to survive the information people around the world are getting may not be accurate – or even real.
Where is the balance between the two? Does the average Internet user assume enough personal responsibility to replace the digging and fact-checking that traditional journalists do on a story? Is the rush to have information immediately, damaging our long-term perceptions of reality?
I don’t have the answers yet – I guess only time will tell.