The Noisy Channel

 

Tweet First, Ask Questions Later

November 20th, 2008 · 4 Comments · General

If anyone has any doubt as to the real-world impact of social media, consider the recent battle between Motrin and the “mommy bloggers”. Motrin had released an ad, launched to coincide with international baby-wearing week,  that presented an irreverent take on “wearing your baby”. Apparently too irreverent: a critical mass of indignant baby-wearing moms used blogs and Twitter to express their outrage, and Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled the ad and apologize prominently on the Motrin home page.

Let’s not waste time debating the ad (full disclosure: my wife, who is a baby-wearing mom, loved it). The real story here is that social media is a game changer for ad hoc protests. In the past, it might have taken weeks to organize a boycott. Now we see coordinated activism–and results–in hours. This is a big deal, and surely a wake-up call to anyone who still believes that social media are a fad.

But the increasing power of social media also raises concerns about information accountability, an issue I’ve discussed before on this blog. What happens if we use the power of social media to get a message out there and it’s wrong? Sure, it’s possible to recant and even issue public apologies (even South Park style), but extensive research shows the lasting power of a first impression, even in the face of contradictory evidence (this is a form of anchoring bias).

Does the immediacy of social media impose new responsibility on publishers because of the potential for harm? Or should non-professional journalists (aka “citizen journalists”)  err on the side of “tweeting first and asking questions later”, letting the professionals take care of sorting out the facts.

The laws regarding defamation tend to favor publishers in the United States, in notable contrast to the corresponding laws in the United Kingdom, which essentially place the burden of proof on the publisher rather than on the offended party.

As an American, I can’t help but wonder if our laws reflect a different time, when publishers were scarce and highly conscious of their reputations. In a day when everyone can be a publisher–and an anonymous one no less–the balance of power to influence the public seems to have changed.

Overall, I see this power as a good thing, a triumph of democracy. Nonetheless, with great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps it’s best for the laws to err on the side of protecting free expression rather than protecting people from the harm that can be caused by malicious or reckless expression. That is the American ideal–to promote freedom of expression while recognizing that it comes at a price.

But it would nice to see publishers, whether professional or amateur, adjust to the new power of the virtual pen. Now that we have power, let’s show the world that we can use it responsibly.

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason Adams // Nov 20, 2008 at 11:42 am

    When I think about all the forwards I have gotten over the years claiming that a pig has been raising tigers, that Obama is a terrorist, or that Microsoft will pay me 8 cents for every person I forward that email to, I’m inclined to think that we will not use it responsibly. Maybe the intellectual barrier to entry in social media is higher than with emails — I don’t think any of the people who forward me stuff use sites like Twitter (though they are on MySpace and Facebook). I suspect with time, the barrier will continue to drop and adoption will broaden even more widely into the crowd of people who are most susceptible to this stuff. That said, I agree that laws should err on the side of free speech and that the individual should bear the responsibility for being both a good source and a good filter of information. I just think we’ve only seen the beginning of a new wave of stupidity.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Nov 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Jason, I’m unfortunately inclined to agree, which is part of my motivation for raising the alarm now. I’m especially concerned about the effects of anchoring bias that I cited. It’s really hard to correct a misleading first impression–something political candidates figured out ages ago, and that some less reputable consultants have exploited.

    In the Motrin incidents, I believe the protesters were sincere. But the same effects could have been the result of a competitor (or some other organization with a competing agenda) inciting a protest. And even if the news of foul play came out eventually, it might be too late to change the outcome. Welcome to the brave new world.

  • 3 Jim Turner // Nov 20, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Daniel I like your take. I had Jessica Gottlieb on as a guest for a radio show and some mommy bloggers and twitterers. You can listen to the show its on my side bar in my blog. One of the ideas that came through my head was “The Ox-Bow Incident” a movie by Henry Fonda. They hang innocent men due to a rush to judgment. I too think that the ad should not have been pulled but to ride out the storm with some conversation in the mix. I think your initial thought that this was launched with baby wearing week is incorrect however as the ad itself had been out for 5 weeks approximately. It was not noticed by anyone until this last weekend however. We discuss that in the show as well.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Nov 20, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Jim, thanks for the correction regarding the baby wearing week. Looking forward to checking out your radio show at http://www.onebyonemedia.com/.

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