'News' on social media must be treated with caution
There is no denying the worth of social media in keeping us in touch and informed. In careless hands, though, it can cause panic, anguish, pain and suffering. The hacking of a news agency's Twitter account that led to a plunge in US stocks and the wrongful implication of a man in the Boston Marathon bombings put the problem sharply in focus. Users need to think twice about what they read, check where it comes from and be less compulsive about passing it on.
Social media makes every user a journalist and detective. Professional training is not necessary; publishing can be done without the need for the checks and balances required by traditional media. Society's growing thirst for ever-more instant information means that whatever comes to hand first can easily be given insufficient critical scrutiny. Where it came from, how factual it is and its implications can get lost in the rush to share.
That was troublesome for police investigating the Boston bombings. While social media helped with the rapid distribution of information, it also led to a flurry of rumours and false leads. The social bookmarking website Reddit was forced to apologise to a student after he was wrongly identified by amateur sleuths as a perpetrator. But even information from credible sources has to be verified; billions of dollars were momentarily wiped from the value of US shares after hackers broke into the Twitter account of the Associated Press news agency and posted an erroneous report that President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White house.
It is not just investments and reputations that are at risk. Undue fear was caused by a microblogger on the mainland who claimed that last week's earthquake in Sichuan was a precursor to a substantially bigger tremor.
In February, undue concern was stirred in Hong Kong by Facebook postings that there had been an outbreak in a hospital of an infectious disease more dangerous than Sars. The nature of online social media means that such reports can move unverified and unquestioned with lightning speed across networks to millions of people.
Social media is a valuable addition to many lives. To some, it is indispensible. But those who rely on it for credible information have to be careful about the source and verify what they learn. Those who use it to disseminate news and other information have to ensure that security is sturdy so that users are protected.