Another viewpoint: Let’s think before we speak on social media

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News and Tribune

By Dec. 15, 1791 the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified by three-fourths of the states.

First on the list was the amendment that has given this nation the foundation for its free flow of information and freedom of speech.

It has been challenged since, and sometimes more clearly defined in court, but the First Amendment stands today as a symbol for all nations.

Within that most precious freedom is also a responsibility that we as citizens should realize and practice in this era of instant communication.

The first of the time-honored four principles of the Society of Professional Journalists reminds those who gather and disseminate news and information as their life’s work to “seek truth and report it.”

It’s difficult sometimes to find truth, especially against the backdrop of today’s competing voices that sometimes do not know whether what they are saying is fact or not.

If truth doesn’t underlie the information that is being passed along, it is equally difficult to ensure no harm is being done, the second of SPJ’s four principles.

A situation recently occurred in Jeffersonville that could have been a tragedy. Thankfully, it wasn’t. A worried family had reported to police on Aug. 26 that a 14-year-old member of the family was missing.

The story of the missing young woman started circulating on social media. People started posting and asking questions. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume the conversation that ensued was well-intended and trying to be helpful.

We at the News and Tribune saw much of that conversation, but in the world of journalism, the first question to be asked is “how do you know that to be true?” It’s tough to verify what is fact and what isn’t when the information cited is anywhere from secondhand or thirdhand to a posting on another social media outlet. That’s why the News and Tribune did not report on the social media conversation in our stories.

Last weekend, the young woman was found by Jeffersonville police in an adjoining state.

In a news release the detective division of the Jeffersonville Police Department said it had been investigating since Aug. 26. On Sept. 8, detectives uncovered new information that enabled them to locate the teenager.

In that same news release, JPD said, “It is important to note throughout this investigation, several false narratives were communicated and spread on social media….This fabricated information slowed the progress of the investigation and could have caused panic amongst parents, children, and residents of Southern Indiana.”

No, it’s not time to change the First Amendment. But, it is time to recognize that we can’t accept everything we read on social media as fact.

Social media can be a great gathering place to trade information and discuss issues and an indispensable help in many situations.

But, it’s important to be able to verify fact or cite sources of information in the process.

The thread of a social media conversation could be started by your next-door neighbor trying to help. Or, it could begin with a post by someone halfway around the world who wanted to see how much chaos could be created. Or, worst of all, the post could be from someone trying to manipulate the situation.

Information that might be of help in a crisis should first go to the people who are trying to solve the crisis. This time that was the police. And, recognize that sometimes police can’t disclose everything they know without putting in jeopardy their objective – in this case finding the missing teen.

In these times of living with phones in hand and communicating instantly, we need to take a breather. As our mothers counseled us, think before you speak. That’s the responsible way to use social media.

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