People who know me (and those who don’t may get the gist), realise quickly that I ask a lot of questions. I guess I fall into interview mode quite often. Wise old owl and all that. The more I listen, the more I can learn.
I’ve noticed in a couple of incidents online that asking questions can also influence others in ways that are not always positive. The two that come to mind are associated with events and happenings that could affect a great many people.
I had a call about something happening around Oxford Circus in London – some police around and a siren heard, the person on the phone wondered if I was nearby and did I know what was happening?
– Nope. But of course I was curious – like any person living in the Capital, you know this will affect the Tube and probably your journeys that day. So I put a call out on Twitter…”Anyone at Oxford Circus?”
The first messages I got back were from people sounding somewhere between curious and mildly unnerved. More came in from people a little closer, there had been a fire engine and some cops – but essentially nothing to get fussed about.
I was unsure though. As I have been trained – if I cannot see it, I need a trusted source, otherwise I’d just be passing on irrelevant or worse information. Basically, adding to a panic.
Much broader – swine flu. I know, were all bombarded with information so I’ll keep it short. There are cases cropping up, closer to home for me and others and there is also plenty of data online to help people learn the facts. But this doesn’t stop people having a panic or creating noise that is not so helpful. It’s been trending on twitter for days, so I guess we are all at it. So it’s giving me pause for thought when I ask questions of people online. I’d want to be sure that I am not adding to the brouhaha.
I had the privilege of talking to Marcel Salathe recently. He studies epidemics at Stanford. He also has a neat area of study ongoing asking people what they know and how they feel about swine flu. Then he can see if this feeling online can influence what is happening on the ground, in real life. If traditional meeting places are not great as a virus could be passed on, people communicate online about what is happening, swap links and pass on news. But they will also pass on things that are not news. It bears considering.
Thinking further, I wondered about what happens around various conflicts or even smaller cases of civil unrest. So many of us are wired, it’s so simple to send something and have that repeated or even corrupted and repeated.
I see a lot of propaganda emails, some with the sort of imagery no one should see from places of war and violence. Of course there must be a source and yes, these messages have origins that are terrible, but also they are cut and pasted into new scenarios, painting current events with a grim hue, falsely.
Marcel pointed out to me that calming misinformation is hard, but that people will also listen to some extent to the truth if it is put out there too. I wonder if human nature likes hyperbole though and that messages in the ether can be more damaging than the things we have to face in our real and fleshy lives.
What sort of data do you pass on?
If you want to take the Stanford survey, it’s here.