There’s no point in recapping how the “Amazon de-lists GLBT books” meme developed, because other people have done a far better job than I. But what it illustrates ably, I think, is the dark side of social networks and how they spread news.
There’s a meme which appeared a while ago about a statement a kid made about news, which has been passed on as a truism about the new media landscape. He said “if something is important to me, it’ll find me”. Behind that is a simple idea: if news matters to me, it will matter to my friends, and they will pass it on to me. If someone isn’t a friend, I’m probably going to be much less interested in it – so there’s no point it getting to me.
If people you know and trust tell you something, you are much more inclined to believe it, and less inclined to stop and think critically about what they are saying. That’s the way we’re wired: we trust our tribe to tell us that we’re in danger, or that there’s a new source of food, or that going that-a-way leads to water, and that-a-way to a nasty other tribe.
Then add in another factor: our reverance for the written word. We have a couple of thousand years of cultural history that makes us much more likely to believe something we see in text. Bibles, text books, newspapers, fake diaries of Hitler – if it’s written, we’re much more gullible about about.
Finally, add in a third factor: the impossibility of making a nuanced, balanced statement in 140 characters.
As social networks increase in influence, this is going to happen more and more, and sooner or later individuals will be physically hurt because of it. Like every village, the global one can turn from warm community to pitch-fork wielding insanity as fast as it takes someone to misread “paediatrician” as “paedophile”.