In an item posted last week, There was no pumpkin riot in Keene, I drew a distinction between two different events that became conflated in the national awareness. There was no rioting during the pumpkin festival at one end of Keene’s Main Street. And no pumpkins were smashed during the riots in the college neighborhood at the other end of the street. But as Reed Hedges noted in a comment on my blog:
The imagined scene of a quaint and boring pumpkin festival erupting in anarchy and violence for no reason was too amusing to resist viral spread across national and internet news.
In conversations about why the story went off the rails, I keep hearing the same refrain. It was “the media’s” fault. Yes, but that begs the question: Which media? Stories are no longer framed exclusively by newspapers, TV, radio, and their counterparts online. Using social media we all participate in that framing, for better and for worse. When we point the finger of blame at “the media” we must also point back at ourselves.
We’re becoming more aware of how and why to be critical consumers of online information. The corollary is not yet widely acknowledged. Because we collectively shape the stories that inform public awareness, we must also learn to be careful producers of online information.
In the aftermath of that chaotic night in Keene, an acquaintance (and prominent local citizen) mentioned in a Facebook post that two people had died. His source? He’d heard it from someone who had in turn heard it on a police scanner. In fact nobody died. I don’t think that careless report amplified the collective misconception, but it easily could have. Our online utterances are news sources. When we like, retweet, and tag those utterances, we shape the flow of news. This is a new kind of power. We’ve got to use it responsibly, and hold ourselves accountable when we don’t.