2017 / 23 January

Immediacy, accuracy and the importance of language

Like many, I spent Friday afternoon glued to various screens watching the events of an “incident” unfold in Melbourne. A news alert popped up to say that a driver, with a gun had gone through the CBD, hitting numerous people.

Even from the outset, the use of language was confusing. Was there a person driving, shooting people? Was it incidental that he had a gun? Or was it first a shooting followed by a getaway?

Jumping onto Twitter, the general consensus was that a guy in a car had driven through one of the busiest streets in Melbourne, hitting multiple people. It had started outside our major train station, with him doing burnouts in a car and shouting at people. Then drove off around the city. Twelve were injured and one had died. Initially, there was no mention of the gun.

From there, it was possible to track the events along a series of parallel lines:

  • The driver was shot at by police, and had been detained
  • The driver had tried to shoot people
  • The driver was shot at by police and was dead

The problem with these parallel stories is that each sit within the realm of feasibility but are all very different. The demand we place on immediacy of information totally outweighs the responsibility we have for accuracy of information. I can understand the intentions of those close by wanting to share and warn others who may be in harms way. What troubles me is our inherent desire to want to draw conclusions from tiny pieces of information, as though we have the right or responsibility to be a discerning voice in a sea of uncertainty.

Of course the underlying question was the motivations of the person responsible. Was it drug related, mental health or god forbid, an act of terrorism?

Here again, it is possible to track the splintering of reporting, this time fueled by personal bias and interpretation. “Terrorism” is an unofficial use of violence or intimidation in pursuit of political aims. However, “terrorising” is to “create and maintain a state of extreme fear and distress in someone”. Regardless of the motivations, this act was indeed terrorising, but it may not have been an act of terrorism.

The distinction of this language is critically important in trying to maintain a reasonable and accurate reporting of such an incident. Unfortunately, despite their very different definitions, we are now conditioned to associate both terrorism and terrorising with a certain religion, and in one of the most deft single-moves of ignorance, quite quickly the reasons for everything was Islam. Check mate.

Through the sea of bullshit, only one Tweet nailed it: “terrorism doesn’t start with burnouts”.

I wasn’t born in Australia, but I consider myself Australian. I love this country but I have been saddened and disappointed in our growing vocalisation of hatred towards people from other countries. Historically speaking we should have absolutely no basis for this viewpoint but it is consistent and loud.

The only solace I took from following Twitter was that for every person that claimed this was a result of Islam was countered by tens saying basically saying “nah mate, actually just a dickhead. Calm down.” Despite this, as time progressed, the balance shifted and the number of people claiming a religious affiliation increased. Every single comment was opinion, but as we’ve seen in the media recently, with a sea of opinion comes the development of a story, with or without facts.

Unfortunately, social media is to blame for these splintering of stories and the heavily biased portrayal of ‘facts’. This saddens me to say because I believe social media (as a sector) is one of the greatest inventions of our generation. It has given a voice to the voiceless, and has revolutionised how we share information and learn from one another.

The flipside to this is that in our race to be first, we’re racing to the bottom. Over the past few months, the power of social media has slapped us in the face again. It has shown that there is no such thing as the bottom. Or if there is, it is an incredibly dark and divisive place. Brexit and the election of Trump are both brilliant examples of socially driven communication and the appeal or resonance of emotion over fact.

Without the invention of parallel universes, I will never be able to substantiate my view that without social media, neither would have happened, but it is my hunch. A hunch based on my observations of the power of language, the power of group-think and the ability to tailor rhetoric to the emotional states of small groups. Because engaging small groups can quickly lead to a majority voice. Not saying exactly the same thing, but following the same source. Or the same core notion.

Since Friday, the facts continue to come to light. What I do know for sure is that five people have died and up to thirty were injured. It was not politically motivated and thus not an act of terrorism. If I were to believe social media, “Australia demands the death penalty”. The first part is incredibly saddening. The second part is important because there is still discourse on social media that it was an act of terrorism, and that specific use of language is dangerous and creates a false agenda that is easy to latch onto. The third one I can most certainly take to be untrue. I have no doubt pockets of Australia demand the death penalty. I also have no doubts that other pockets fundamentally disagree. But on social media, these oppositional views are afforded the same airtime.

One thing is for sure: we have the ability and the right to share our opinions so long as we can defend them. But just because I read an article about fixing a sink doesn’t make me a plumber. Nor does reading seven facts about the Higgs Boson makes me a scientist. Thus having an opinion doesn’t make me a journalist.

It is vital to remember that the words we say and the language we use is important. All I can hope is that we learn we’re responsible to think before we press send. To spend a little more time understanding and analysing the facts before we throw our 140 characters into the ring. And that we develop and promote accountability for one another. Without this, we will only splinter further.

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