Sunday, November 18, 2012

Brave new world? Or overhype?

By mistake, I decided to watch a curious documentary on BBC3 titled "Superstorm USA: Caught on Camera". I thought it would be an interesting look back at one of the worst weather phenomenon this year. Sadly, this documentary wasn't what I expected, and has successfully lowered my faith in social media. I'll say now though, that it's not because of social media as a tool itself. It's more the way the story was told...

Hurricane Sandy was terrifying. At its peak, it became the largest hurricane on record with winds spanning 1,800 kilometres. Through the seven countries it passed, over 200 people perished. It's estimated to cost over $50 billion, making it the second most expensive storm after Katrina.

Despite warnings from federal officials, and indeed President Obama himself, some people took these warnings lightly. So many went out to see what was happening for themselves along the coasts. The documentary begins with shots of people looking out at the raging seas saying that people wanted to witness a slice of history for themselves. "Through their videos," it was said, "we can also get a sense of what happened during the storm."

The documentary went on to showcase a number of home videos and camera phone footages from the storm. Some of these "citizen journalists" were filmed at which point they exalted the wonders of social media. "Social media is quicker than traditional news," they said. "We get more information through social media than from elsewhere," they exclaimed.

True enough, but during the crisis a few weeks ago, the web was rife with misinformation and people trying to make a name for themselves by posting horrendously false information which could have costed lives. All just for a few more retweets and followers. That's shameful and it's an affront to one of our modern world's most powerful tools.
On Monday night, as people attempted to find information on the damage inflicted on the east coast of America by Hurricane Sandy, misinformation spread quickly online. Furthermore, the spread of such misinformation was abetted by journalists, who were once taught the importance of verifying every source. Rumors and misleading photos quickly overtook Twitter and are continuing to feature heavily on Facebook, as people share the most shocking – and occasionally untrue – stories about the powerful storm.

What I find worrying is that the BBC decided to do a documentary to promote these "courageous" people who went out filming to put up on YouTube. Every authoritative figure asked the people to stay indoors and not go out. Some inevitably decided to risk their lives. Granted, there were no precedence to convince people not to go outside.

From now on though, since one of the world's biggest broadcasters thinks it's great to make such a documentary and give these "brave" people even more visibility, more will want to ignore warnings. Everyone will want to go out into the danger and whip out their smartphones to snap some shots of impending misery for millions of people. For what? For a few retweets and a few YouTube views? This isn't citizen journalism. It's a travesty. It's actually quite selfish.

When the next disaster hits and people get washed into the sea or die in some other way... Well? What will the rhetoric of the next documentary be when that happens, I wonder...

No comments: