You see it happen every day: a story breaks on Techmeme, and 30 minutes later, the headline is followed up by tens of "discussion links." Some bloggers weigh in just to get the trackback link, or the link on Techmeme, some because they're generally interested in the news, and some because they think they have something new to add to the conversation. Whatever the reason, though, the effect is the same -- the tech blogosphere becomes an echo chamber, and the more bloggers writing about a story, the more clout it has and the more chance it gets repeated by a mainstream news outlet. In all, though, the effects are mostly innocuous. In the political blogosphere, though, a repeated rumor can carry considerably more significant consequences.
The Observer's John Noughton relates a story of how unsubstantiated rumors have been making their way from political blogs and forums to the mainstream press, and in doing so makes a case for a future of media in which citizen journalism takes a backseat to good old fashioned reporting.
Rumors Gone Wild
Specifically, Noughton cites a rumor that Michelle Obama, wife of US presidential candidate Barack Obama, was caught on video tape hurling a racial epithet about white people. The rumor started on Larry Johnson's No Quarter blog. His source? "Someone in touch with a senior Republican" who knows that a "major McCain backer has a copy of the tape." Later, Johnson says he's learned more about the tape via "five separate sources who have spoken directly with people who have seen the tape."
Despite the clear lack of a credible source, the rumor had serious legs. From friend of a friend of a friend hearsay, to a mention on Fox News as "credible buzz," to Obama being asked about it by a reporter from the well-respectd McClatchy News Service. "So the story whirls around the echo-chamber of the paranoid, right-wing blogosphere, with the odd whisk from Fox News reporters, until it reaches hysteria," says Noughton. And though no tape has surfaced, damage has potentially been done.
Therein, perhaps, lies a danger in putting too much credence in the blogosphere and citizen journalism. At times having untrained eyes on the ground can be invaluable at getting the story reported, and sometimes citizen journos can beat the mainstream press to a breaking story. But when your sources are relying on rumors heard from friends, lending credence to those rumors by mentioning them in the mainstream press is toxic.
We've seen rumors run wild on the tech end have real-world consequences as well. Last May when Engadget erroneously reported that Apple was planning to delay Leopard and the iPhone, the company lost $4 billion in market cap in an afternoon. Even though Engadget quickly updated its headline and story when Apple denied the rumors and said their source (a memo) was a fake, the story was frozen in time on Techmeme and in people's RSS readers with the wrong information.
With the rise of Twitter, mobile video blogging, and other tools of citizen journalism, the news cycle is now seconds. With news rolling in non-stop 24 hours per day, the continuous, Twitterized cycle doesn't leave much time for fact checking -- speed matters. But that's not the future that Noughton hopes for.
When rumors published and repeated without checking the facts can have far-reaching consequences -- like influencing voters in a US presidential election, or knocking $4 billion off a company's market cap -- accuracy should count for something. Noughton provides a moral for the tale of the phantom Michelle Obama tape: "If confronted with online rumours, investigate first, report later."