When UBC associate professor of journalism Alfred Hermida examined the history of human interactions, he discovered there has always been trepidation around new methods of communication.
During an interview with the Georgia Straight at a West Side coffee shop, the former BBC journalist explained that in the Middle Ages, people relied on the village elders as keepers of an oral tradition. But when the new technology of recording information on paper gained popularity, there was a backlash among those who preferred gathering facts through word of mouth.
“You can see why people might go, ‘How do I know that’s true? Who wrote it? When did they write it? Why did they write it?’ ” Hermida said. “Now, of course, it’s the opposite. We all go and look at documents and say, ‘That’s way more reliable than an eyewitness because eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.’ ”
Similarly, he said, there was a backlash against the introduction of the telephone into people’s homes. That’s because it was seen as an invasion of privacy before people eventually got used to it.
“The way we react is very much based on the way we’ve lived our lives in the past,” Hermida noted.
Tell Everyone examines impact of social media
In his new book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters (Doubleday Canada), Hermida chronicles how social media is broadening how humans communicate and reshaping the social, political, and business landscape.
As with the introduction of other communications technologies, there’s a sense of alarm over whether social media can be trusted and if it may be compromising people’s privacy.
“These things are going to persist even once Twitter goes or Facebook goes or they get replaced by something else,” he predicted.
He pointed out that since prehistoric times, humans have been sharing information to create a sense of belonging and help ensure survival of the species. At the most basic level, hunters had to communicate with one another to avoid being eaten by wild animals. And today, people sometimes share information over social media to stay alive as well as to share what they know about the world.
As an example, Hermida said that Mexicans send out tweets anonymously to alert people when drug cartels have launched attacks in certain neighbourhoods. This enables parents to choose alternate routes if they have to pick up their kids from school or if they have to do necessary errands.
“We have more than a billion people on Facebook and a half a billion tweets a day,” Hermida said. “It becomes this backdrop to our lives, but we’re still trying to understand how to read social media like we’ve learned how to read a newspaper or how to read a magazine.”
One of the lessons of the book is that people have a compulsion to share information—and social media enables them to do it to an extent that has never before been possible. This has helped spawn grassroots political movements, such as the Arab Spring, that helped toppled dictators in the Middle East.
Social media has also transformed how Hollywood markets its movies. Because filmgoers can find out via Facebook and Twitter what their friends think of new releases on Saturday morning, movie studios are pouring vast resources into trying to influence the weekend buzz about their pictures.
Hermida offers consumer advice for social-media users
The emergence of Facebook and Twitter over the past decade, however, has also created opportunities for charlatans. Hermida noted that after the Boston Marathon bombing last year, there was a sudden wave of new Twitter accounts.
“Part of it is people wanting to be part of the story, but part of it is spammers and hoaxers trying to cash in on the fact that people are talking about this.”
In some instances, he said, mischief-makers disseminated links hoping to get unsuspecting Twitter users to download a virus to their computer. Tell Everyone offers tips on how to become a more discerning user of social media and avoid being conned in this way.
“You can almost have a credibility scale that comes with a tweet after evaluating how long they’ve been on Twitter, how many friends they have, and who they’re connected to,” Hermida stated.
Employing this approach reinforced the accuracy of a tweet by a software consultant in Pakistan, Sohaib Athar, who announced that Osama bin Laden’s compound had been raided in May 2011. Hermida reports in Tell Everyone that based on Athar’s earlier tweets, he lived in Abbottabad, where bin Laden had been hiding. Athar had signed up for Twitter four years earlier, adding authenticity to the bin Laden tweet.
Twitter helps with responses to earthquakes
Hermida’s book also documents how Twitter is providing seismologists with early reports of earthquake activity. Because an earthquake is so completely unexpected, people feel a need to share this type of “OMG” information, he writes.
The same is true of disasters such as Superstorm Sandy or major floods—and these events rarely create the type of panic that the public might expect.
“Through the lens of social media, the story of how people behave in the face of adversity is a far cry from the archetypal disaster movie,” he writes in Tell Everyone.
Nevertheless, when major news stories erupt, such as the death of an Ebola patient in Texas, Hermida said people filter these crises through Hollywood films such as Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman. And because there are so many Americans on Twitter, it’s easy to develop a skewed view of the story.
His prescription is not to avoid Twitter but to exercise caution when trying to put a blizzard of tweets into context.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s going to be a lot of rumours, speculation, emotion, and opinion,” Hermida said. “That’s a very human thing.”