Over the weekend, I posted a link to a website that was supposedly the personal website of Asma el Assad, the wife of Bashar el Assad, the Syrian dictator. The site was seemingly hacked to make it look like an admission of guilt by the Syrian first lady. As it turned out and as I made clear in the update, this was a hoax.
A few days ago, a supposed collective statement by Palestinian intellectuals condemning the Syrian regime and declaring: “not in our names”, was also making the rounds on social media. That too may turn out to be false..
The Syrian regime is a monster that is killing its own people. But does that justify spreading lies (or, as is more likely, planted stories designed specifically as propaganda link-baits )? Old school journalists who have been warning for a while from “internet news” are feeling vindicated. They will remind us that only verified news deserve to be spread. But are things so clear-cut?
I would say that no, they’re not. Unlike print media which is forever committed to paper, the internet has an instantaneous feedback and self-correction mechanism. The truth will float to the top and the rumors will get buried (witness the updates to the stories above). Bloggers like me don’t have editors and fact-checkers, but we have engaged readers who will immediately point out errors and mistakes (and trust me, I even have grammar and spelling police at my heels). Besides, even old fashion media and venerable journalists know that the truth is the first victim in a war.
Like in “real” journalism, reputation matters for online purveyors and sharers of news. Ultimately, readers will divide websites, twitter accounts and facebook friends into three categories:
- Those who outright make up news and intentionally spread rumors that fit political agendas (eg. Beirut Observer)
- Honest people who contribute in spreading rumors but are too “lazy” to update when inconvenient facts emerge
- Those who contribute in spreading rumors but who really care about the truth, even if it’s inconvenient, so they post updates, apologies and retractions in the same location of the original post.
I believe it’s ok for conscientious bloggers and online sharers to aim to belong to the third group. We’re not supposed to be thorough to the point of paralysis. There will always be a place for the fact checkers and venerable outlets that will only publish established facts.