How trustworthy is social media?

There is an old Japanese proverb: If you believe everything you read, best not read. The big question is nowadays can you believe anything you read?

Although our ancestors used the pigeon post in antiquity, until the advent of electronic communications, news could for the most part travel no faster than a man on horseback. To sail from Europe to the New World would take two months or more, which although seldom mentioned is one reason the struggle for American independence was both inevitable and successful.

In days of yore too when literacy was nowhere near as widespread as it is today, there was a paucity of information

Since the advent of email, the Internet and the WorldWideWeb, and with the universality of the virtual world, we face an entirely different problem. Instead of having perhaps at most two or three sources of information to rely on, we have it coming at us from all sides. So how do you sort the wheat from the chaff when you have six, seven or a hundred different versions of events or answers to the same question?

The University of Vienna might just have the answer, if Rumor Mill 2.0 is anything to go by. Might, but don’t count on it. The good people working on this project may divide rumours into speculation, controversy, misinformation and disinformation, but simply putting a label on something does not necessarily help. The legendary Jan Harold Brunvand devoted almost his entire working life to the study of urban legends, but on occasion these have been known to come true.

By the same token, just because a video or some other meme goes viral doesn’t mean it contains even a grain of truth.

Those interested in following this project should note that similar research is currently being undertaken at Kings College London, Germany’s Saarland University, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, here are a few printed mistakes for you to ponder:

On October 12, 1920, the death of Magnus Hirschfeld was reported by the London Times. Although he had been attacked, Hirschfeld died in 1935.

The Empire News for Sunday, July 28, 1940 reported the death of Leon Degrelle BY A GESTAPO BULLET

In reality, Degrelle died at Málaga in March 1994.

The Empire News again, the August 25, 1940 issue: on the murder of Leon Trotsky, his father Moses Bronstein is said to have denounced him to the synagogue as an enemy of Judaism and “the curse of humanity”. Though both those claims are undoubtedly true, Trotsky’s father David predeceased him.

The above is not a mistake; it was probably made up by the paper for whatever reason.

In June 2001, Britney Spears was reported dead. Again, this was not a mistake, in this case it was a hoax.

[The above was first published February 2, 2014; the original wasn’t archived.]

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