Mon 21 Mar, 2011
Tags: memetic hazard, news sources, single source, urban legends
In the summer of 2007, a rumor appeared in the mainstream press speculating on whether famous airhead heiress Paris Hilton had been disinherited. This story hit all the right notes for wide distribution–a famous person well into the 15-minutes-of-fame cycle as the lead character; a personal tragedy that seemed to be karmically appropriate; and at one of the slower parts of the year.
As it happened, the story was entirely fake–Hilton had not been written out of the family will; the story–such as it was–more or less went away after that. How did this happen?
Journalistic ethics require that sources be cited–anything else is plaigarism and is, when found out, published severely. Careful reading of the stories when they broke in the US media all linked back to one of several sites in the news.com.au domain. Looking at those articles and carefully crafting searches to find other articles without the links to news.com.au revealed no other sources–the only source for these rumors was one particular subsite on news.com.au which, when the story was published there, was automatically republished across the other domains held by that site. The original published article did not cite any sources–no credit was given to a specific publication, no interviews were mentioned, and no mention of even “an unnamed source close to” the person of interest was made.
Leaving aside the complete lack of journalistic integrity evinced by the news.com.au organization for calling this “news”, and leaving aside the complete lack of competence of all the major news organizations who picked up the story and reprinted it without any further investigation, this incident provides an interesting situation for determination of the validity of information.
If information can be traced to only a single secondary source, that information is probably not valid.
This comes into play with the dissemination of urban legends as well–in most cases, urban legends are confabulated from a mixture of half-remembered stories and anecdotes from friends mashed together; there will be no actual friend-of-a-friend who this happened to. A story is heard and then repeated; the more repetitions it goes through, tthe more likely it is to appear to come from multiple sources–but it is, on the whole, just the same thing spread out, like peas on the plate of a schoolboy.
The counter to being deceived by these sorts of stories is at once obvious and difficult: trace sources. When an article appears, look for what sources the article cites; find those sources, and trace the story back to whoever originally broke it. In most cases, there will be some original interview or other primary source immedately concerned with the event who will be available; at that point, an evaluation on the reliability of the source can be made.
Unfortunately, this is a time-consuming task and one which is not normally possible for most people to carry out regularly; most people do not have the time nor the inclination to spend that time searching through archives (which may be rapidly changing, due to the immediacy of the news cycle, and which may be ‘contaminated’ by later revisions) to find out where information came from.
Developing an organization for the evaluation of news stories in this fashion to determine their reliability would be a definite plus. Such an organization would very much help journalistic integrity, in that a visible mark of the reliability of a story would encourage a higher standard of journalism. It would help to neuter certain memetic hazards by nullifying their influence.
It would help to defeat astroturfing as well; marketing organizations hired to push a message must, by necessity, remain consistent on the message that they are pushing; regardless of the amount of variation, certain key phrases will end up being repeated, and those can be traced on a timeline. Fuzzing the message with synonyms may make the tracing harder, but also much less effectively spread–much of the appeal behind certain messages lies with the specific wording of the slogan.
A lie has time to go around the world before the truth can get it’s shoes on–thus spake Churhill, Twain, and Spurgeon. Many stories appear appealing on their face, but repeating them without determining the source of their allegations can be very detrimental, as was found out when the US invaded Iraq based on what turned out to be an unverified rumor promulgated by a single source.