Alt-Facts: Shooting Before You Aim

AltFacts, really meant as a joke about national-level distortion of information, took on a frightening new meaning locally in November, when a series of ugly police-related incidents spiraled out of control.

Now, with social media, information distortion can truly explode into digital panic. On one day, two police incidents that felt related took place. In one, a prisoner being transported managed to steal his transport’s squad car and escape in it after the officer stopped to help with an accident. In the second, a suspect in a white pick-up truck was trapped by police on an off ramp near the Providence Place Mall; police opened fire, resulting in the death of the suspect and hospitalization of his passenger.

There will, no doubt, be many more revelations in these cases, but from a journalistic standpoint, the AltFactiness of the events was truly distressing. Local media jumped on the story (yay – a trampoline!) and were tweeting as fast as they could, with the overall reliability of a Trump family member. Official news outlets (see online version for links), with social media updates being made up to the second, variously reported multiple deaths, shooting at the police, that the person who escaped with the cruiser was the person at the mall (all untrue), and other assertions based on little or no evidence.

Now it’s one thing for Twitter to get hysterical on its own. The posts to social media from Providence residents declaring, “I’m OK, everyone! I was not involved in the massive bloodletting at the mall today! I repeat, I AM SAFE. But be careful out there EVERYBODY. BE SAFE!!! Look out for each other!!!” – and there were many of those – were kind of touching in their own overwrought, hysterical sort of way.

This AltFacts writer’s grandmother lived in Germany, in the PSM-era (pre-social-media). We got used to her calling whenever there was a US-based disaster big enough to make the German news. We have fond memories of her ringing after a particularly bad earthquake in California. To her, RI and California were basically the same place. But no one was telling her RI was affected by an earthquake – she jumped there on her own.

The media, however, is not supposed to do that. In fact, it’s kind of our job to not do that. To know that California and Rhode Island are too far apart to share a quake. To maybe not respond to a message that Godzilla is loose and eating the state house by instantly retweeting it. Maybe, you know, look into it a little. Verify. Ask Godzilla’s mom where he’s at today, before passing along the word. Journalism is under tremendous pressure now to be fast. Humans all make mistakes, of course, especially when working at lightning speed. Heck, we at Motif invented a column called AltFacts so we wouldn’t have to fact check anything (we still do – JK). But what the world needs most from journalism right now isn’t speed or emotional exacerbation – society has developed a tremendous corp of citizen journalists to handle that. And they’ll retweet crap – saving media outlets the trouble of passing along news like a recent spate of reports around Donna Brazile, which all turned out to be based on messages sent to reporters who never checked the original documents (too long to go into here, you can check it out yourself). What’s needed is filtration. We need resources we can trust to sort through the shouting and identify the voices of truth. Politicians, and often the public, have fully embraced the theory that if they say something over and over again, enough people will think it’s true that it might as well be. It’s up to what remains of real journalism to act as an antidote to that – to earn back the trust of readers, viewers and listeners by being judicious voices of reason. REPORT SAFELY OUT THERE EVERYBODY!!!

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