The late, great Ronnie James Dio once sang, “If you listen to fools, the mob rules.”
One can only glean what the metal god truly meant by those words, but they could easily be applied to an unfortunate phenomenon on Twitter: the tendency for false topics to “trend.”
For those uninitiated, topics “trend” on Twitter whenever enough people are tweeting about the same thing at the same time. It is why you might see advertisements for everything from films to household products to poorly-written college newspaper columns using a “hashtag” followed by a single word or phrase.
This concept helps people find important ongoing topics or those which are of interest to them. It’s a tool that should play into the social mechanic of social media that I have touted so highly. Ideally, it’s something that would bring us closer together.
Yet social media often doesn’t work ideally.
In reality, when Twitter’s trends are not dominated by One Direction-themed topics, they can be downright dangerous—not necessarily because they pose an immediate threat to anyone, but rather because they display a troubling level of ignorance in a large enough contingent of Twitter users to “trend” on a worldwide scale.
Take an incident that occurred on the first of this month; a 16-year-old by the name of Kara Alongi tweeted a message so cryptic that her followers believed she had been kidnapped.
Her tweet spawned the trending topic “#helpfindKara” that quickly reached worldwide status and helped Kara’s account garner over 100,000 followers in just a day’s time, according to CNN.com. The problem was that Kara had not been kidnapped at all.
The New Jersey girl had instead run away from home.
Police confirmed that she had called a taxi before the tweet was posted and that a taxi driver had identified a girl who matched Kara’s description as a passenger he’d taken to the Rahway Train Station. She was later found safe, but has ceased tweeting since the incident. Of course, most who participated in the trending topic #helpfindKara, followed Kara’s account or retweeted her that day had not even thought to confirm whether the girl had actually been abducted.
Certainly, it’s a noble cause to want to aid in the finding of a person who could possibly be in danger. However, a narcissistic motivation compounded by a, “if I hear it on the Internet, it must be true” mantra that led to the hoax evinces everything that’s wrong with the way people approach their online persona.
This isn’t even mentioning the people Twitter has killed off.
Most recently, Twitter users decided to begin spreading a hoax that Bill Nye (the Science Guy) had passed away. Rather than simply doing a quick search to see if any form of reliable news source had reported his death, countless users took this singular piece of evidence as fact and “RIP Bill Nye” proceeded to trend worldwide.
Of course, Nye is still alive and enjoying this planet’s inertia (which is a property of matter.)
My point, if I may narrow it, is simply that Twitter has displayed an ability to spread news faster than any other source in existence. The rapidity with which these topics took hold on a worldwide scale exhibits it, but their lack of veracity shows why it still remains an unreliable tool for this very purpose.
It isn’t to say that you should never believe a potentially earth-shattering trending topic on Twitter, but instead make certain you aren’t just buying into something some attention monger cooked up in his or her bored late-night hours.
Because as Dio sang, “If you listen to fools, the mob rules.”