In an era of social media proliferation, it’s crucial to check the facts

The Nation/ANN

Like all tools mankind has invented, social media is a knife that cuts both ways. When handled responsibly, the new technology has enormous potential for good. Criminal acts caught on camera and uploaded to Facebook have helped police to hunt down culprits and victims to bring about justice. Social-media campaigns get donations of money or blood flowing fast in response to disasters or medical emergencies. In a recent case, a clip distributed on social media showing a woman beating her 5-year-old daughter in Samut Prakan triggered a speedy response from authorities. Scenes of the girl being thrashed with a broomstick and threatened with a knife prompted welfare officials to whisk her and her twin sister into custody, and police to charge the mother with assault. Such rapid action would have been impossible in the days before social media. But now, given irrefutable evidence gathered by ubiquitous phone cameras and made public in the blink of an eye, it can be impossible for authorities to act otherwise. A delayed response could see law enforcers charged with negligence of duty. Social media thus offers ordinary citizens a remarkably powerful tool in the battle against crime and injustice.

But the sword is double-edged.

The people-to-people networks also seethe with false information, often disseminated deliberately and then shared unwittingly by users who never bother to check the facts or the source. The old maxim — that a lie can spread halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to put his pants on — has never had more veracity than in our age of online echo chambers. This feature makes social media a perfect platform for thieves and propagandists. Hillary Clinton supporters have blamed her defeat in last month’s presidential election on fake stories of her “corruption” circulating online. Meanwhile so-called phishing scams net millions of dollars from unwitting Netizens every month.