With social media, there are no editors

The Dry Erase / Whiteboard Girl hoax – the story of the girl who supposedly quit her job and explained it all in a series of 33 photos of text she wrote on a whiteboard – makes me think of trust, as in: how do you know what you read online, never mind in print, is true or not?

The answer is that you don’t. Not really, no matter the source and how much you’ve come to trust in that source – meaning, the person who wrote what you’re reading – as someone who has a record of telling the truth.

Jon Orlin writing in TechCrunch at the weekend has a very interesting and certainly timely assessment of trust in the context of the whiteboard girl hoax, arguing that in the past, journalists would protect the reader from the fake stories because of their vetting practices.

That’s all changed now, he says.

[…] With social media, there are no editors.  There is no waiting for confirmation.  When you tweet or re-tweet, you are not checking the facts or even so much concerned if you are spreading a lie. When the Dry Erase Girl meme hit the Web, 421,000 users shared the story on Facebook, and theChive got 2.5 million unique visits for two days in a row, the same amount it normally gets in a month.

[…] In the days before social media, I think news organizations might have held the story.  Now with the instant viral spread of information that happens even without the media, the story is out there whether we report it or not.   The man behind the hoax, theChive’s John Resig told

TechCrunch "we didn’t need mainstream media to make this happen, we just needed the people… This  was spread through Twitter, Facebook and interoffice emails."

That is reality today. It reminded me that I have a paragraph in the terms of use for this website that I first wrote in 2006 which says:

1. All information you see in this site is provided “as is,” with no warranty or guarantee of accuracy. Treat all information here with the same caution as you would with any other professional weblog or website you visit, printed publication you read, or audio/video publications you listen to or watch.

It’s not a cop out as I also include a text saying that if I find an error or inaccuracy in anything I write about, I’ll promptly correct it.

The point for all of us is precisely that – treat everything you read online with some caution. As Orlin concludes in his TechCrunch post:

[…] If you don’t want to get fooled, be more skeptical of anything you read – whether it is in a newspaper, a blog, a tweet, or status update. Just because it’s on a web page doesn’t make it true.

[The cartoon above is by Geek & Poke, used here under their CC licence. It’s one of their early ones, from 2006. If done today, I suspect it would reference Twitter rather than Digg. In any case, who trusts Digg today?]

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