The email arrived in early January 2010 via a colleague, who got it from his father, who got it from a mail list. It began, “Do you remember 1987….”
The formatting and style were amateurish, and the tone just-folks. It went, in part:
Thought you might be interested in this forgotten bit of information………
It was 1987! At a lecture the other day they were playing an old news video of Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying at the Iran-Contra hearings during the Reagan Administration. There was Ollie in front of God and country getting the third degree, but what he said was stunning!
He was being drilled by a senator, ‘Did you not recently spend close to $60,000 for a home security system?’
Ollie replied, ‘Yes, I did, Sir.’
The senator continued, trying to get a laugh out of the audience, ‘Isn’t that just a little excessive?’
‘No, sir,’ continued Ollie.
‘No? And why not?’ the senator asked.
‘Because the lives of my family and I were threatened, sir.’
‘Threatened? By whom?’ the senator questioned.
‘By a terrorist, sir’ Ollie answered.
‘Terrorist? What terrorist could possibly scare you that much?’
‘His name is Osama bin Laden, sir,’ Ollie replied.
At this point the senator tried to repeat the name, but couldn’t pronounce it, which most people back then probably couldn’t. A couple of people laughed at the attempt. Then the senator continued.
Why are you so afraid of this man?’ the senator asked.
‘Because, sir, he is the most evil person alive that I know of,’ Ollie answered.
‘And what do you recommend we do about him?’ asked the senator.
‘Well, sir, if it was up to me, I would recommend that an assassin team be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth.’
The senator disagreed with this approach, and that was all that was shown of the clip.
By the way, that senator was Al Gore!
Pretty alarming stuff, yes? Actually, no—because it’s fiction, in service of outright propaganda. Oliver North never said any of this in any Senate hearing. Neither did Al Gore. (I know because, among other things, I checked with the Snopes website, where reality rules. I’ll tell you more about Snopes in Chapter 3.)
What was going on here? It’s simple, actually, as many of these kinds of emails tend to be. There were at least three plain goals: 1) Turn Oliver North, a right-wing icon of the 1980s, into a modern hero; 2) turn Al Gore, a born-again liberal, into a dunce; 3) use the fictional situation to promote the idea of preemptive military action and state-sponsored assassination. There’s an honest case to be made for 3), but this email’s fundamental dishonesty undermined that case for anyone who’d done the slightest homework.
My colleague had made it clear in his forward that he was skeptical. But how many people along the chain, before it reached his inbox and mine, had taken it for granted?
I don’t have to tell you about the information mess, of which that email is just one tiny but toxic piece of flotsam. In an era of media overflow, we’re swimming in the real and the unreal, and sometimes we wonder if we’ll sink.
We won’t—or at least, we don’t have to. Sure, we find ourselves in a radically democratized and decentralized media culture that’s producing an overload of information, an alarming amount of which is deceitful or just mistaken. But as we’ll explore in upcoming chapters, this culture is also responding with important new tools and techniques for managing the flow and determining what’s real and what’s not.
Moreover, even as some people are spreading garbage, whether deliberately or inadvertently, others are giving us genuine hope for a future that’s rich in trustworthy and timely information.
Consider, for example, the Ushahidi project and co-founder, Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan lawyer living in South Africa. In the wake of the horrific 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ushahidi—originally created to track election news in Kenya—launched an interactive “Crisis Map of Haiti” to track events in the shattered island nation. Information came in from people on the ground via SMS, the Web, email, radio, phone, Twitter, Facebook, live Internet streams and other reports. Volunteers at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy’s “situation room” read the reports before mapping them, discarding items they considered unreliable.
Who was this for? Anyone who needed or wanted it, but the Ushahidi team hoped, in particular, that the humanitarian community would use the map as a guide. That’s exactly what did happen. As a Marine Corps representative in Haiti texted to the organization, “I can not over-emphasize to you what Ushahidi has provided. Your site is saving lives every day.”
Everywhere I turn these days I find people like Okolloh working to build and refine an information ecosystem we can use to make better decisions. Some are media creators. Others are helping us sort it all out. And many, like Okolloh, do a combination of both.
To make the most of what they’re doing, each of us will need to recognize our opportunity—and then act on it. When we have unlimited sources of information, and when so much of what comes at us is questionable, our lives get more challenging. They also get more interesting.
Information overflow requires us to take an active approach to media, in part to manage the flood pouring over us each day, but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we see. Being passive receivers of news and information, our custom through the late 20th century era of mass media, isn’t adequate in the new century’s Digital Age mediasphere, where information comes at us from almost everywhere, and from almost anyone.
That anyone can include you and me, and our neighbors and their neighbors. Somebody created that propaganda email about things Ollie North and Al Gore never said in the Iran-Contra hearings. Yet you, or I, or almost anyone we know, can create something as trustworthy as that piece of fiction was deceitful. That this door has opened to us is a powerfully positive and democratizing development. But anyone who steps through it needs to engage in a new kind of media literacy, based on key principles for both consumers and creators, which we’ll delve into starting in the next chapter.
The time to work on this is right now. Our democratized 21st century media are a land of opportunity, and of peril. How we live, work and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on how well we use those media.
The next two chapters will offer practical and effective ways to understand the digital media landscape and to apply that understanding in our daily lives. First, though, let’s look back in time just a bit—some history will help us put today’s world into context.