THE ISSUE: Misinformation in social comments on Christmastime fire.
OUR OPINION: Social media can be a dangerous tool.
A pre-Christmas fire that destroyed an RV and damaged a house led to social media posts that underscore the way misinformation can propagate through social media.
Frustrated with what the owners saw as a too-slow response by fire rescue and ambulance service, they took to social media to complain. These concerns then fueled a spate of social media comments that drifted away from the actual incident into general criticism of the fire department, the media and others involved in the incident.
Based on misinformation provided by fire rescue, the initial news story had a factual error about what unit first arrived at the house, and the homeowner and the fire department differed about what time the unit arrived.
But on social media, there were a number of statements about whether there was water on the truck that responded, how long it took, and whether the fire department was responsible for loss of the home due to its errors. This is the kind of story that creates emotions and heat, but sheds little light on the facts.
In many ways, social media posts are like the party game many of us played as young people. In the rumor game, a person whispers a message to another person. That person whispers what they thought they heard to the next person until everyone has been told the story.
At the end of the game, the last person told says what they understood, and the originator of the story tells what they said and everyone laughs at the different versions that occurred as the story was told from one to another.
But when the story is about a serious event such as a house fire where people are injured and there is extensive property damage, there is no humor in distortions that can occur as a story goes from one person to another.
By the time fire rescue did an investigation and provided a complete story, the facts in their report were substantively different from what had spread on social media.
The fire department report did not spread like the original report, which is usually the case when colorful allegations are made on social media.
While none of this is intended to minimize the very real damage suffered by the homeowner and their guests, and the frustration they must have felt with what they perceived as a delay in the response of fire, ambulance and deputies, it is a cautionary tale about the way misinformation spreads on social media.
Like a fire, a small spark on social media can morph into a blazing inferno as it is spread and commented on by people with no direct knowledge of the facts nor direct communication with others who are posting and reposting comments.
Social media can be a powerful tool for communicating, but unfortunately it can also be a powerful tool for spreading misinformation. Use it wisely.