Editor’s Column: Consider the source

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“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

Jonathan Swift

I’m grateful everyone minded their P’s and Q’s who attended the vigil in Rangely Tuesday, and that our local peace officers were in attendance. It was an event that very much felt like it might go south in a hurry. Thankfully, it didn’t. 

As a woman, especially during my younger years, I’ve found myself in situations that made me uncomfortable and fearful for my safety. Tuesday’s vigil had some of those hallmarks.

It should serve as a lesson to us all, particularly in these days of rampant misinformation. One unfounded rumor posted on social media about the event, by someone who “heard it from someone else,” agitated a whole lot of people for no reason. As the nation of Myanmar learned the hard way, disinformation on social media can be used for evil purposes. Military personnel, posing as fans of pop stars and national heroes, posted “hate speech” memes about Muslims to incite violence against the nation’s Muslim population. And it worked: The Rohingya people were murdered, raped, and forced out of the country. 

It’s clear that America is not immune to that kind of propaganda, given how quickly misinformation about coronavirus spreads on Facebook, and how many divisive memes and political posts have been traced back to troll farms. 

Words are powerful. Teachers, journalists, preachers, politicians and advertising agencies know this. So do bullies and liars and narcissists. None of that is new. What is new is now every person’s words can be freely and widely published on social media, completely unedited, unfiltered, and with zero accountability. 

What’s the difference between someone sharing a lie or unfounded rumor on social media and actual journalism? That’s easy: corrections, clarifications, and retractions. It’s an embarrassing but essential aspect of an ethical journalist’s job, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. Are there unethical journalists out there? Certainly there are, just as there are unethical and unstable people in every profession. They might be the ones who never admit an error, just a thought. 

If we ever start seeing social media holding its users accountable, we might be able to start trusting it as a reliable source of information, but until that day comes, if it ever does, we’d probably be wise to stick with funny animal videos and real pictures of friends and family.

By NIKI TURNER | editor@ht1885.com