The News in 140 Characters

Six degrees of inaccuracy

by Jackson Paine

On the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists armed with automatic weapons opened fire in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper. Meanwhile, I drank hot chocolate in flannel pajamas on another continent. The most pressing issue on my mind was my lack of slippers, which meant I would need to put on shoes (with laces) to get the paper. I would maybe skim a few headlines, at best. 

Eventually, I put on my shoes and learned about the 12 casualties at Charlie Hebdo. I gave little attention to any of the specifics concerning the tragic events in Paris until three days later, when I came across a tweet from Aziz Ansari with the hashtag “#RupertsFault.” Rupert Murdoch is a media tycoon who owns the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, which includes 21st Century Fox, News Corp and others. In 2014 Forbes ranked him the 32nd most powerful person in the world. Prior to Ansari’s tweet, Murdoch made disparaging remarks, calling for the Muslim community to end their “jihadist cancer.” Ansari fired back, asking: “Are you responsible for the evil shit all Christians do or just the insane amount of evil you yourself contribute to?” Ansari went on to blame Murdoch for not stopping every atrocity that Christians have ever committed, all under the hashtag “#RupertsFault.”

While this Twitter feud could have simply remained an amusing interaction between two very different celebrities, the exchange got me thinking. In our world of online interaction, information is more easily accessible than ever. This poses a problem, as the line between news and opinion begins to fade. To unearth news that is important or relevant to us personally, we have created filters based on what we “like” on Facebook and “follow” on Twitter. We are able to move on with our lives with the press of a button, assured that the jokes and news we want will arrive on our screens on their own. How many of Ansari’s 5.08 million followers saw his tweet? Like me, was this the only piece of “news” they had seen all day?

Not long after reading Ansari’s tweet, I was listening to the radio with my father in the car and the newscaster mentioned anti-Islam protests in Germany. I joked that maybe we should start blaming the Christian community as a whole for all the evil shit that Christians do, unconsciously quoting Ansari almost word-for-word. After hearing myself, I started to notice how much of my own input in conversations is derived from tweets and skimmed headlines. In other words, when it comes to most of these issues, I have a very superficial level of understanding. At best, I know the hook for an article that likely went into much greater depth than the headline itself. At worst, I read the unsubstantiated opinion of some celebrity I liked enough to tap the follow button on my iPhone. 

What scared me even more was how often my uninformed opinions would go unopposed, my friends nodding in agreement much of the time. They didn’t know that what I regurgitated was passed from a reporter to some news source to someone on Twitter and then on to me. In the case of Aziz Ansari’s tweet and my father, I was the fourth link in the chain and he the fifth, a canyon of space separating us from the facts regarding the monstrous slaughter at the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo. 

A prime example of this is the theory of six degrees of separation. In 1994, three college students from Pennsylvania showed that Kevin Bacon could be connected to any other Hollywood actor in fewer than five steps. According to the Six Degrees of Seperation Hypothesis, the same is true of people outside of Holywood. This concept can be applied to how we form opinions. One person reads something, forms an opinion, and tells a friend their opinion, who forms their own opinion based off of what they were told and tells another friend, and so on. Kevin Bacon is at the end of every one of these opinion chains. 

Kevin Bacon is a busy man, and cannot be bothered to keep up with every single news platform. Lets assume he gets his news from word of mouth. This puts Mr. Bacon in a dangerous position, as any story that goes viral will inevitably make it all the way down the chain. Now it seems poor Kevin has a flawed perception of very real issues in the world. 

Just this November, many news outlets were duped into thinking that the Klu Klux Klan had progressively rebranded after the International Business Times headline being “Klu Klux Klan Opens its Doors to Hispanic, Blacks, Jews and Gays.” They weren’t the only ones either. The Huffington Post and Yahoo! News  both posted their own versions of the story. It turned out that only one faction of the KKK from Montana had rebranded itself, and its intentions had been condemned by dozens of other chapters of homogenous, white-hooded men across the United States. While some of these outlets eventually corrected their articles, ol’ Kevin doesn’t have time to follow up, and next thing you know he’s praising the KKK for their forward-thinking and willingness to change, horrifying his dinner guests and ruining everyone’s appetites.

I’m not saying we should turn our backs and ignore the celebrities, politicians and musicians we respect and love. They are people too, and their opinions can be just as valid as any other human being’s with fewer Twitter followers. I’m not saying that we should delete our Facebooks, burn our phones and break our computers with bats, “Office Space” style. Social media is an incredible tool through which we find information and interact with people effortlessly.

Perhaps we should just be more conscious of what has influenced our opinion before we share it with others. Before you tell your friend that “the jihadist cancer” must be stopped, pause and ask: what is the preceding link? Is it a thorough report on terrorism from the State Department? Or is it the 140 characters that Rupert Murdoch posted in the space of a bowel movement? Because like it or not, you are a link in that chain. Your friends take you as a credible source. If you read them a tweet that milk is poisonous, they may tell their friends who will tell their friends who will tell Kevin Bacon, and ultimately, you want Kevin Bacon to have enough calcium in his diet, to say nothing of being informed.