Crowdsourced Intelligence and You

This post should have gone up ages ago, as part of a course assignment for HUCO 510.  Sometimes you just get side-tracked.  Anyway, this week something happened that gave me the perfect topic to complete my assignment.  Enjoy.

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On May 2, 2011 Osama Bin Ladin, one of the most feared terrorist leaders in the world, was killed.  Nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, attacks orchestrated by Bin Laden, US Navy Seals successfully carried out the assassination.  A nation rejoiced.

And, as that nation rejoiced, within minutes of the news being made public on the Internet and on television, all social media websites were abuzz.  One can imagine the sheer volume of the expressions of support, opposition, incredulity, happiness, sadness, congratulations and disgust that flooded the web.  Or, one can simply search “osama” on the Twitter index.  The President would later televise an address to the nation confirming the death of the man who had been cast in the role of nemesis to an entire people and way of life.

It is during these kinds of world-changing events that the most interesting insights about our society are discovered.  Megan McArdle, editor for The Atlantic, made one such discovery, as she browsed her Twitter feed on the fateful day.  One tweet in particular caught her eye.  Being one of Penn Jillette’s 1.6 million followers, she read the following quote, apparently in response to the death of Bin Laden:

“ I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

Amid the—no doubt—millions of reactions, some of them shocking, this short sentence at least had the ring of reason.  And it was attributed to perhaps the most famous civil rights activist in North America.  A combination of Jillette’s celebrity as a performer and this level-headed response to the event in contrast to many much less level-headed responses made it viral; within hours of it going up on Twitter, many of Jillette’s followers had retweeted the quote, and it had become a trending topic on the social network, in the midst of the Bin Laden furor.  McArdle, unlike many others, did not retweet the quote, though she did initially feel the urge to pass it on.  She hesitated, however, because it didn’t “sound” like Martin Luther King, Jr.  And for that hesitation, I am sure she was later grateful, when it was soon discovered that the quote was misattributed.

Besides the end to privacy (which I’ve repeatedly discussed on this blog), another quality of modern communication technologies that we must all adapt to is the speed at which information travels.  Networks like Twitter and Facebook increase the rate of transmission exponentially.  The cult of celebrity has also found fertile earth in these virtual spaces.  If I had been the person to publish the quote on Twitter, with my 80 or so followers, rather than Jillette, the quote would not have been so popular, and the backlash would not have been so severe.  The fact that the initial tweet reached 1.6 million people dramatically increased how quickly the quote spread from that point.  So where did Jillette get the quote?

Despite some media outlets implying that he did this deliberately to mess with his followers, it seems clear now that it was accidental.  Jillette copied the quote from a Facebook user’s status update that read:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” MLK jr

In viewing this, it is clear that Jessica Dovey, the Facebook user, was adding her own interpretation to an authentic quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jillette tried to copy it to Twitter, but given the 140 character limit for tweets, was forced to edit it down.  Apparently he did not realize the first sentence was not part of the quotation.  Jillette later apologized repeatedly for the tweet, stating that it was a mistake.

“Why all the fuss over this?” one might ask.  It seems that most people are upset not so much by the misattribution as they are at the criticism of the popular reaction and the media circus that has surrounded the assassination.  Dovey and Jillette, and McArdle as well, who went on to write a blog post and editorial in The Atlantic online about her discovery of the misattribution, have faced a great deal of criticism since the quote was first shared.

We live in a world of memes, in a place where information—regardless of its accuracy or authenticity—is shared at an exponential rate, and where fiction can be accepted as fact based on who says it and how many believe it.  The only thing surprising about this particular incident is that the mistake was discovered and the truth of it spread online as fast as the initial tweet did.  If it had taken a day or two longer for someone like McArdle, with a platform to spread the information, to discover the mistake, would anyone have noticed?  Probably not.  It is not like people haven’t been misquoted or misattributed in the past.  What’s noteworthy is the speed at which this particular misquote proliferated.

I find this interesting because, as I have stated, it gives evidence of how communication has changed in our society.  Many of us rely on sources like Twitter to engage with current events.  It serves us well to be reminded that, in spite of the many benefits of crowdsourced intelligence, the onus for fact-checking is on the reader.

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