The woman who thought the Rhine would engulf the world, and the dangerous turn social media can take
We all remember seeing in the past year, shared massively on every and any form of social media, a short video of a terrified woman. That very fear, born of her religious fanaticism and a penchant for conspiracy theories fuelled her outburst on national television. Charlotte Töricht, a 35-year-old woman from Strasbourg (France) ran in front of the camera of a French television crew as they were filming live in front of the town prefecture. However, her message, though very real and true for her is not the poignant piece of interest and arguable worry that interests us here.
No indeed, it is the aftermath that is of much greater concern to our society at large. The video was shared, re-shared, tweeted and re-tweeted over and over again. It produced both hilarity, mockery and from some a form of compassion for the star of the show. But this is the world we live in now. A world in which information has no time to be properly constructed or discussed before it is diffused massively on the world wide web, be it willingly or unwillingly. Why else indeed would a journalist from Britain such as me be writing a piece about some inoffensive but problematic individual from across the continent and know for certain that perhaps not all but a vast majority of my readers know full well of whom I speak.
The sheer scale and speed at which information is shared is unprecedented and bears problematic consequences. Social media is a wonderful tool that connects the world in a way it never was before. But it also allows in the mass of information that it diffuses, for fake or inaccurate news to circulate under the guise of proper information. And therein lies the danger.
To an informed person watching a 30 second video of a woman announcing the end of the world and yelling out verses of the bible as evidence, is of no consequence and they will not be taken in by the derailed words of this self-proclaimed Cassandra. But now we are met with a problem. How do we properly define what an informed person is? A survey conducted in 2016 by the university of Oxford found, unsurprisingly, that an ever-growing number of people use social media as their main source of news and information. Roughly 20% of British people are concerned by this trend, and, again unsurprisingly, it mainly involves young people. In the United States the bearing of social media is even greater, with more than 60% of people admitting to looking to it at least once in a while for news. But “so what?” you may well ask. False or erroneous information shared on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels looks the same as actual information and is presented in the same way. The difficulty lies therefore in finding the cracks. But when something looks and sound like it could be real, albeit sometimes at a push, and it comes from a source an individual trusts then why indeed would they question it?
An ever growing number of people turn to social media as their main source of information
It’s a sobering thought and one that threatens in its stride the very basis of modern democracy. As citizens we are entitled, and arguably dutybound to be somewhat informed so as to in turn be able to make informed choices when it comes to big decisions that impact on us all. The gaping wound left by Brexit stands as a tragic testament to this fact. Unchecked and unverified information circulates far and wide gaining momentum with each mind it convinces, and once it’s out it’s hard if not impossible to stop. Like the Hydra growing two extra heads from every one that was cut off, information diffuses itself exponentially spreading doubt and fear wherever it goes.
More and more individuals spend more and more time updating, sharing and posting on social media. So much so that it has become a part of everyday life, so it is fully understandable that they in turn, turn to it for information. However, that fact combined with genuine threats posed to the press and journalists at large can have but dire consequences. The knell of Donald Trump’s words still ring loud and clear “Fake News” he berated, and “fake news” people heard. And thus accelerated the fear and suspicion, alas already alive and well, of journalism and traditional news anchors. Ironically enough, as it is often the case, he who is with sin has cast the first stone. And in a strong way too.
Though the example of the “folle du Rhin”, as her compatriots coined her, is not one of extreme concern it does however outline the very real threat that social media poses to our way of life. If we cannot give credit where credit is owed and cannot look with a critical eye at the mass of information diffused and shared on a never ending and repetitive basis then we are doomed. And we might as well pray that the Rhine really will engulf us all.
For futher reading:
Jim Paterson, Is this the end of critical thought?, The new review, 20/11/2018
Phinella Doherty, Social Media and the press. Troubling times ahead, The soptlight, 14/09/2018
Ce contenu fait partie du parcours temporel "Crue du Rhin, entre science et fiction" conçu par le Master Sciences et société de l'Université de Strasbourg.