Thursday, March 29, 2012

Twitter Danger

Like the Casey Anthony case, it happened virtually in my backyard, and I've been paying attention to the Trayvon Martin situation as closely as I did to the Anthony case, which is to say, not at all. But while having the Prius serviced I was watching the TV news in the lobby, and they reported a story that hits home for stuff I've been saying for years.

You can read a link to what's now the latest below, but here's the sum of it.

Some person had identified a certain address as that of Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman. It turned out it was the wrong George Zimmerman. But Lee took hold of that message and "re-tweeted" it to all his followers (about 250K of them). As a result, the occupants of that home, an elderly couple (one of them with a heart condition) received various threats and unwanted attention, and were compelled to spend time in a hotel.

Now for all practical purposes, we don't need to have Lee's name involved in what I want to say, and that he has 250K followers made the effects more serious than if he had had only 250. Either way the lesson is the same. Also, whoever Lee got that information from is just as culpable, so let's start with them. We'll also refrain from commenting on the obvious point that such tactics are not particularly savory in the first place, even if the address had been correct.

As an information tech person, I would first recognize that the name "George Zimmerman" is just common enough that it's possible a mistake might be made. It isn't as common as "John Smith," to be sure, but it's far more common than "Zaphod Beeblebrox". (Sorry about that, but I'm re-reading The Hitchhiker's trilogy for fun lately.) So IF...IF....I were inclined to do such a thing as the first person (pre-Lee) did, I'd make darn sure -- DARN sure -- it was the right George Zimmerman. And if I could NOT be sure, I'd keep my mouth shut.

(As it is, the news reports also say this first party is denying the error, claiming that it IS a correct address, and that others just want us to think it is wrong. Rather reminiscent of the way Acharya S and Earl Doherty do business, isn't it?)

If I were the second party in question (here, Lee, but as I said, it makes no difference who it is) I'd also recognize the same thing and check my source for accuracy.

If I were the third party -- one of those 250K, but again, it matters not if it is only 250, or if it is 250 million -- same thing. Before I was gallumphing over to that address, or before I mailed some nasty lit, I'd check my source.

Now of course, if I were that careful, I likely wouldn't be the type to be sending these people threats and such anyway. But that's not exactly the point. The point is that people up and down this chain didn't care enough to check. It does make it worse in qualitative terms to the extent that Lee has so many followers, and as a celebrity, is the type of person many people trust automatically. But even if his name were Phineas Gump and he had only 25 followers, it takes only 1 of those followers to do something harmful.

Which does need to be pointed out as well: Lee has 250K followers, and clearly, at least 249.8K didn't act on this information. Still, it doesn't take 200 or even 2000 people to do irreversible damage because of such carelessness. It takes, again, only 1.

The story below reports that Lee has apologized, as it right and proper, and that there may be a lawsuit in the air. If that does happen, it could be quite interesting from an information tech perspective. Obviously, we can't stop this sort of thing from happening with tighter controls; freedom of speech prevents that. Thus the only real avenue the average citizen has is to litigate for civil damages. If the elderly couple wins, maybe it will cause more people to be more careful about passing on information before they check it out. On the other hand, maybe some will object that a victory will have a chilling effect on free speech.

That's the fine line to be walked: Free speech versus responsible speech. It applies just as well to the problem of how to counter numbskulls who promote crap like the Christ-myth (though no one's going to move into a hotel because they think Annals 15.44 was not an interpolation, of course; it's a matter of scale there too).

As far as I'm concerned, the situation is best handled such that all are free to say what they will provided what is said and transmitted does not in some way incite and directly instruct the commission of a criminal act by its very words. There's some gray there, yes, but it's as close to black or white as we're likely to get. And then, the current option to pursue civil damages should be open as well.

The example of Lee's thoughtless re-tweet is a lesson in information science that needs to be spread abroad widely. So be sure and re-tweet this blog entry to everyone, eh?

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