The subtext of Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse’s important story last week about the almost surreal “hoax” involving Notre Dame football star Manti T’eo should serve as the latest – and perhaps most direct – warning yet to professional communicators about the double-edged sword that is the Internet.
Her opening paragraph reads: “The Internet can be a blunt and brutal place. It’s built on unruly mobs moving across the virtual terrain, digesting stories and leaving behind carcasses. But it is also one of the last vestiges of wide-eyed, unfettered belief.” Hesse goes on to warn: “One of the interesting aspects of the Internet is the way that the veil of anonymity has come to provide a false sense of authenticity.”
And therein’s the rub – like in the old Memorex video tape commercial, is it live or not? To us at CommCore, the old adage, “If it’s too good to be true it probably isn’t,” requires a 21stCentury re-do. Perhaps it’s something like, “Beware: If it’s on the Internet, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not; it can take on a life of its own.”
We’re not behavioral psychologists. And we won’t be the arbiters of whether T’eo was a victim or a party to the hoax. Certainly the mainstream media ate his story up. But it doesn’t take a Phd to recognize that somewhere between the instant interactivity of the Internet and the need for recognition by social media users is a toxic place when it comes to truth and believability:
· We want to be first, we want to be recognized, we want to be validated.
· We don’t verify enough before believing because we want to believe first, maybe even NEED to believe first. And with the blurring of the line between online innuendo and the shrinking pool of fact-based journalists, what sources to trust is an increasingly difficult decision.
Whatever lies behind the bizarre T’eo story, we at CommCore will re-double our advice to our clients:
· Monitor the Internet at all times for postings about your brand, company or issue. You can’t contain what you don’t know.
· Early engagement may not stop the proliferation of a bogus or inaccurate item, but you will have the opportunity to get your side online early, which might limit the damage.
· Social media is about engagement, not news releases or lecturing. Find out all you can about the source of a posting before you take it at face value. All some Internet posters want is simple acknowledgement.
· Speed of response in today’s real-time world is important, but speed without some measure of authentication is a trap that can be avoided with good judgment.
Just ask Manti T’eo. Or ESPN.