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Look Before You Tweet
By John Hood

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Apr. 1st, 2015

RALEIGH — Economist and syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell — a North Carolina native, by the way — is fond of denying that there are permanent solutions to problems. Instead, he insists, “there are only tradeoffs.”

Sowell isn’t just being ornery here. His point is better explained by a lengthier passage. “Life has many good things,” Sowell once wrote. “The problem is that most of these good things can be gotten only by sacrificing other good things. We all recognize this in our daily lives. It is only in politics that this simple, commonsense fact is routinely ignored.”

Even if you don’t buy Sowell’s pessimistic take on the quality of political discourse, surely you see the wisdom of his larger point. Every day, we make decisions that place some value above another. We forgo the cheapest item on the restaurant menu because we don’t like its taste or are in the mood for something else. We decide to get our aging but serviceable cars repaired rather than shell out money for a new one. More consequentially, we might choose an out-of-state college rather than the less-expensive school nearby because we believe the higher short-term cost will buy us higher lifetime earnings.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a problematic tradeoff in the consumption of news media. Before the advent of cable TV, talk-radio networks, and the Internet, we had many fewer sources of news. Today, we have a virtual smorgasbord of media alternatives at our fingertips, meaning that our news diet is no longer controlled by a small number of powerful gatekeepers (a good thing) but also that we run the risk of retreating into enclaves of ideological groupthink and failing to understand what’s really going on (a bad thing).

Today I offer a somewhat-different version of the same kind of problem: the tradeoff between immediacy and accuracy. Now that we can read, hear, or watch media outlets 24 hours a day, news travels at lightning speed. That’s great. But it also means that we can react to news instantaneously, as well. We can form snap judgments and share them with Facebook or Twitter friends who reside in the same enclave and who immediately reinforce and share those views. The resulting “memes” have the potential for good (by galvanizing public attention to a righteous cause) or for ill (by infecting the body politic like a virus).

Remember the infamous Duke lacrosse case here in North Carolina? It proved that social-media accounts weren’t necessary for people to rush to judgment without getting all the facts. Old-fashioned outlets such as newspapers and TV stations bought the fake-rape story hook, line, and sinker because it fit the preconceived notions of the journalists in question. Nevertheless, email referrals helped the story go viral and the proliferation of ideologically tinged websites and blogs kept it alive long after mainstream media outlets had revisited their initial, flawed reporting.

More recent cases such as the police shooting in Ferguson and a purported rape at the University of Virginia have put the tradeoff between immediacy and accuracy in even starker relief. Millions of Americans read, hear, and saw what they wanted or expected in these cases and formed snap judgments that proved faulty. We now know, thanks to investigations by President Obama’s own Justice Department among others, that Michael Brown was not trying to surrender when he was shot. We also know, thanks to a police investigation and more deliberative reporting by competent journalists, that the Rolling Stone article alleging a gang rape in a Charlottesville frat house was ridiculously fanciful.

There are, of course, real rapes on college campuses. There are real instances of police brutality or misjudgments, with tragic consequences. Every false report spread virally as fact serves to insult true victims and render them less likely to be believed.

If only for the sake of avoiding embarrassment — the kind experienced by executives and celebrities who recently responded to Indiana’s passage of a religious-freedom law by announcing boycotts, even though they themselves lived in states with such laws already on the books — I urge you to look before your tweet.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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