Emptying the ocean with a cup

Fighting with people online is like sitting on the beach and trying to empty the ocean with a cup. You pour it out on the sand, and it flows right back in.

Social networking is a constant love-hate with me. I love that I can stay in touch with my family and old friends who live [anywhere but here] on a daily basis, bringing us much closer together than we ever were as children or as young adults. I love that I can talk to my readers, have a convenient feed of interesting material from wildly diverse sources, and toss my own stuff out for those who might be interested. The Social Network is a fun place for diversion.

And I'm much better than I used to be about getting into fights. In fact, I first wrote this a week ago, and then shelved it because it wasn't worth the inevitable nastiness. We all know it's pointless to sink into the drahmah. But it's a struggle for me, because the very nature of my profession is to dispel ignorance with facts. Not truth - truth is a matter for philosophers. What is truth to you may anathema to me, and vice versa. But facts... that's what we in the news business are compelled to provide, so that people can make informed decisions about the important issues of the day.

I used to wade in every time I saw people re-posting yet another sadly misinformed or outright false meme, every time people clearly had fallen hook, line and sinker for another asshole spouting a conspiracy theory as fact. Ocean, cup. I'm better now, partly because I recognize there are times I just need to walk away. There's real work to be done, after all.

The one I don't seem to be able to resist is, "Mainstream media is ignoring it, but THIS is happening!" As if "mainstream media" is a giant hive Borg-mind and we are all doing the bidding of our corporate masters (who couldn't pick any of us out of a lineup). As if we just walk on by enormous stories because we're too busy reorganizing the icons on our desktops or something.

Sometimes it's not as prevalent a story because it happened weeks ago, and the major coverage took place when it actually happened and nobody notices the date-stamp on the story they're linking. Just because they just found out about it doesn't mean it's fresh.

Sometimes it's not all over your feed because it's not true. If I see any of these items one more time... or the Easter-Ishtar thing, that was big a while ago, and then recirculated as a correction, which is rare (and I don't know how helpful it is). Don't forget the number of really disgusting falsehoods spread about the Boston bombing, such as "teacher from Sandy Hook listed among the dead at Boston Marathon - proof that it's all a conspiracy!" Which, of course, was total nutbar nonsense.

The most frustrating is that often, the story that people are screaming about is all over the so-called mainstream media. It's everywhere, and they just haven't seen it because they don't have news outlets on their feed. It's astonishing to me how many people do not follow a single news feed, and instead rely on other people retweeting or reposting a story that someone else posted from a news outlet. It's like we're all playing a massive game of Telephone. So if none of their friends are on CNN, and thus none of them re-posted a story, does that mean the CNN story doesn't exist?

My absolute "favorite" is when someone posts, "I bet mainstream media won't say anything about this!" and the link they put up is to the Washington Post... or even better, to the Huffington Post, which is just linking to the Washington Post. That's when I'm jamming a sock in my mouth to stay quiet and go back to actually writing the news.

The latest one is the terrible tragedy in Nigeria, of hundreds of young girls kidnapped from a school. First, let's smack the number of people referring to the kidnappers as "Islamist," which is a word that doesn't fucking exist (shame on you, CNN). Boko Haram is a jihadi group largely considered a terrorist organization responsible for about 10,000 deaths and is believed to have links to al Qaeda, on a path of revenge after more than 900 members of Boko Haram died in the custody of the Nigerian government last year. "Islamist" is not a word approved for ethical news coverage, as it unfairly slants the entire faith with the extremists. It's like calling all Christians members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

But let's back up. What's that thing I said a minute ago? Yes: "Shame on you, CNN." Because Boko Haram is on CNN. And was a week ago, and before that.

Also on BBC, the Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera America, PBS, the Guardian, New York Daily News, the Washington Post, USA Today... everywhere from the Detroit Free Press to the Bangkok Post. That's just on the first page of Google News one week ago when I first wrote this. As of today, the first page includes the Chicago Tribune, more from CNN, Al Jazeera and NBC, plus CBS, Nigerian and other international news sites, Reuters and look, CNN again. The stories have progressed over the last week and a half from "this happened" to "why we think this happened" to "why aren't national and international governments doing anything about it."

Yet nearly every post today about this horrible event insists, "Why isn't mainstream media covering this?" Hell, today it is on page one of CNN.com. Did anyone look?

It's a horrifying, terrible event... and even more frightening, it's not new. It's believed Boko Haram has kidnapped girls many, many times before in their war against female education - especially Western education. In fact, it's bigger news overseas than it is in Nigeria, because according to them... it's nothing new. Here, have a story about that - from CNN, a week ago.

These are things that need to be talked about. These are things people should know. But it's not going to magically pop up on the average reader's feed, because the average reader is relying on his cousin and next-door neighbor and that stranger who posted the cat video to be the gatekeeper of his news. Events like the Boko Haram kidnapping call for protest and action, yet most of the protest I've seen has been wasted on blaming the media for allegedly not covering it.

Before you repost something that insists this super-secret news story is being ignored, consider on what you're basing that assumption. If your assumption is based on your Twitter feed and ten seconds on CNN.com, that's not a wide enough net. Google News is your friend. Better yet, find some newspaper web sites for respectable publications, and add them directly to your feed. Skip the game of Telephone and get real news, directly from real news sources, and I think you'll be surprised how much they aren't ignoring the important things happening today.

And sometimes the crazy stuff... well, it kicks off a more interesting and important discussion. A fraudulent net-outrage tiff might fade in a day, but if it gets people talking about the underlying issue, that's the important point, whether it's road rage or racism or the NYPD's image issues.

To paraphrase a friend, it's incumbent on all of us to reduce the signal to noise ratio on the 'net. A little more substance and a little less histrionics and fingerpointing, and we can find out what's really going on in the world. There are important things, sad things, scary things.... and good things, too. We can educate each other, learn from each other, maybe make the world a better place through the single most powerful informational tool in the history of the human race.

Just strip off the "mainstream media" hate, unless you're damn sure we deserve it.


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