I'm one of over 3000 people on the 'Yeovil Real News' Facebook group, which serves up a mix of news stories, road closures, adverts for Zumba classes and the like. Twice in the last week the group has been taken in by wrong information.
Firstly, a definite hoax - a local pub burnt down, and someone posting under a false name announced a candlelit vigil with hymns and a cake. We should have smelled a rat, but instead over 50 people, including local councillors, turned up at the appointed time. They were rightly pretty miffed, though at the same time it showed community support for the pub.
The other day a story spread that some playstation consoles had been stolen from the hospital. Long before anyone (including me) had said 'are we sure this is right?', group members were queuing up to offer replacements, digging out old games consoles and offering support to the hospital. Again, it was a demonstration of community support. But it turns out the story isn't true, and the hospital are now checking how the rumour started. It's not a scam, just (probably) some second hand information that wasn't accurate. But once that information is passed on to 3000 people, it's hard to put it back in the box.
It's a steep social media learning curve. A few things I'm mulling over
- checking the facts, even if you doesn't sound as compassionate as you want to sound by doing so. "Isn't this dreadful what can we do to help?" is, and sounds, compassionate. "Are you sure this is right?" doesn't, and sounds sceptical. But it might be a better response in the long run.
- the crowd can swarm in both directions. There was some pretty tough stuff said over a recent Youtube video of some of Yeovil's younger citizens. People can fall over each other to condemn, and people can fall over each other to help. It's easy to get swept along with the crowd, but it's not always right. The heart runs faster than the mind.
- how do we prevent people from getting cynical? It's clear that people want to help where help is needed, but will people be less generous next time round because they're wary of a story not being true?
- don't always take someone else's word for it. And that goes for everything, not just on Facebook. Lots of people are trying to sell us things, influence us, give us a leg up onto their bandwagon. We play along because it's easier, takes less work, and want to be liked. It's a bit more effort to find out for ourselves, be our own person. Then, as Justin Welby said the other day, we might get past the labels and find out the truth.
- I struggle with being both a local vicar and part of these groups. Things I might write as a local person, put into the mouth of 'vicar says' and splashed in the local paper (it happened a few weeks ago) don't quite sound the same. I'm increasingly aware of the local paper raiding social media for stories, which makes me more guarded about my contributions.
- I'm not sure what expectations there are out there, if any. I know of one vicar who is in touch with hundreds of folk in his community through Facebook, it's one of the main ways for people to connect with each other, and finds this a real dilemma e.g. when mediating in disputes and being seen as 'taking sides'.
- why am I posting this here, rather than on Facebook?
How do other people approach this, or do you steer well clear?