April 20, 2013

Social Media Witch Hunts: When the Wisdom of the Crowd Turns into the Stupidity of the Mob

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Social Media Professional and Professor

Witchcraft Trial

“Twitter says you’re guilty…”

We need to stop treating social media like it’s some kind of miracle cure that will turn dictatorships into democracies, water into wine, and rats into kittens. (I know, I’ve tried.)

Social media is just another communications tool. Because of its vast, always-on, right-here-right-now digital network, social media can work very quickly … or not at all, since vast human networks tend to favor what’s sensational, not what’s rational.

In other words, social media is a rumor mill on steroids.

If your mill is limited to just a few like-minded friends and family, then maybe the little things you do will create a buzz. But if your rumor mill is massive and planet spanning, like Twitter, Facebook and the other popular social networking platforms, then generating a buzz requires something truly extraordinary.

Or truly awful…

Read about the Boston Bomber witch hunt that transpired on Reddit. We’re lucky that this digital vigilantism resulted in only feelings being hurt.

Now you know that if someone on Twitter or some other rumor mill had successfully identified the real Boston bombers, we’d hear no end to how wondrously wonderful the wonder of social media is. But because it failed miserably, the story will fade away.

It won’t be long before someone else will try to use social media for the same purpose.

Social media is just a tool – it’s not inherently good or bad. The risk is believing all the hype about social media saving the world, and assuming that its mere involvement will naturally lead to positive outcomes. For all its technological prowess, social media has only proven that it’s exceptionally fast at revealing human nature.

That said, I’m off to play with some kittens. I’ve got a little black cat who’s trying to tell me something…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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