Saturday, 30 November 2013

Earthquake, SMS, and Social Media

Image courtesy of http://www.sjp.com
A seminal work by Elder and others (2013) entitled “Information Lives of the Poor: Fighting Poverty with Technology” discusses in clear prose and through illustrative examples the promise of information and communication technology (ICT) in building the lives of the world’s poor.  It starts with a foreword by Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which highlights the Grameen Village Phone program that afforded poor people with access to telecommunication facilities while at the same time providing income for poor village women in Bangladesh.

It highlights, among other things, how technology has penetrated society and even poor households.  Use of mobile phones, for example, spiked beginning in 2002, surpassing all other forms of technologies like television, personal computer, and the internet, a fact also pointed out in the paper. Its attendant effects were also highlighted in several studies apart from those mentioned in the book - about how network coverage impacts positively on employment (Klonner et al 2008), how ICT helps in achieving economic growth (OECD 2005), and how mobile banking helped increase remittances (Mendes et al 2007). 

The power of ICT is argued to have more pervasive effects in information dissemination. For example, studies show that  mobile phones bring better prices for fish (Jensen, 2007) and social media is used to disseminate disaster warnings and post-disaster response (Shklovski et al 2008).  ICT, especially in the context of social networking, has significantly revolutionized how people access and consume news. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based in Oxford University in a study in 2011 (Newman) pointed out that in the UK, use of social media has become one of the rising sources of traffic for the websites of news organizations.  Facebook and Twitter have become a way to spread information from a news agency, by the power of the “share” and “like” buttons and the skilful use of the “hash tag”. 

I was in Manila when the earthquake struck Bohol in 15 October.  I got the news first hand through a text message from our companion in the house.  While my family was dealing with fear of a first-hand earthquake experience in the succeeding hours, I was in a meeting, browsing through FB posts to get a glimpse of what has happened after the quake.  Right after the earthquake, I called my wife to hear how things were. Without mobile phones and social media, I would not have had the information that would help me stay and feel calm despite the tragedy.

But not all is good news with phones and the internet.  Commentaries have pointed out how social media contributes to misreporting (see Washington Post, for example). An edited volume compiled by Anne Mintz entitled “Web of Deceit:  Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media” (2012), shows how social media can be used to intentionally misinform.  These realities bring in an important normative question – with information flooding through ICT channels every second of the day, whose story should we believe in? Whose version of the truth should we “share” and “like”?

It must be important to point out that even without social media, the internet, or mobile phones, misinformation and mis-education can still be widespread.  The question presented here does not absolve news agencies from pursuing a particular story with a biased frame or the spin doctors who creatively deceive the public through wilful machinations.  But the power of social media to spread wrong information exponentially is dangerous, especially in a context where a lot of people are connected through a mesh of networks using ICT.

I remember very well how text messages sent panic to people in Tagbilaran City in the recent 15 October earthquake. A text message warned people that water, presumably caused by an earthquake-induced tsunami, has already reached J.A. Clarin Street.  Two days after, a post in Facebook escalated the story that an 8.0 magnitude quake is expected to hit Cebu. A week after, somebody else made the claim that a new volcano was discovered in Bohol.  A ‘forward message’, ‘like’, or ‘share’ act of one person can send panic to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people who have already suffered enough.

Several people have called for greater responsibility in the use of social media.  For example, before posting and sharing, we must do some fact checking (see Jennifer Dunn) because the content that we link to our profiles is our responsibility.   Others suggest that we should respect social media and not treat it as a toy or a medium for our jokes (see Scott Kleinberg) – by using it we acknowledge our great responsibility.  Still others say that what we post builds our online personality (see Chris Syme), and thus, posting something that is a hoax, reflects our lack of time to read and check facts and our propensity to believe anything that comes our way.

It does seem then, that ethics is social media rests on the one that reads and shares, and much less on the one that creates content.  I remember for example the coverage of Maribojoc mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr.’s incident with the Philippine Red Cross coming from the country’s reputable news agencies.  Interaksyon’s story was entitled “Bohol mayor stopped relief distribution, wanted goods turned over to him”,  while that of the Philippine Star was “Bohol mayor to Red Cross: We don’t need you”.  The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a similar story line with a lead “Bohol mayor drives out Red Cross team”.   The news went viral in social media and nasty comments were made by several people who read the news and clicked “share”.  Stories and days later, we learned that such was not the real story and a certain degree of misunderstanding of language, context, and representation was apparent.  However, the mayor was already cursed, berated, humiliated for days.

If I follow Jennifer Dunn’s suggestion of fact checking, I might still, like the others, click “share”.  After all, the story was one of the banner stories of three of the country’s leading and supposedly credible news agencies.  The story is not something of a joke and if I believed that it was true then it is my greater responsibility, as what Scott Kleinberg would say, to share it.  And if I want to build my reputation as a concerned citizen and a compassionate other, then Chris Syme would probably approve if I flood all my accounts with that story. A story repeated several times by different people and sources creates that illusion of truth.

This is what social media does to a story.  The number of times a story gets liked, commented on, and shared, builds traction and credence.  In several instances, a falsity becomes truth, a half-truth a complete one, and a paid opinion the sentiment of the majority.  But how do we exempt ourselves from this viscous process when we are limited in our capacity to distinguish fact from fiction?

I take inspiration from a song I learned in Kindergarten.

“Peepep the small jeep is running down the street.
Stop, look and listen, stop, look and listen.”

Stop. No need to rush to click that button.  That somebody who said that he’d rather be first than right is no longer popular.

Look.....for other sources elsewhere. Verify as much as you can. If people are saying the same story at the same time, that does not mean they are right. So look and look. Be mindful of who is saying what.

Listen.....to yourself whether what was said there matches your philosophy of things and your outlook in life.  Ask yourself “what use will it be for me and for humanity if I comment on this one or share this in my page?”


If content creators are not responsible, we should at least be.