Telling truth from fiction, and social media rants from cold hard reality

Remember back in high school English classes you learned about parody: the imitation of a particular writer’s style, usually highly exaggerated, for comic effect. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live, and Internet sites such as The Onion, immediately come to mind.

We were almost always able to tell the difference between pure fiction and parody. And programs such as the Orson Welles broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” alerted us to the danger of making something sound too much like a real news event.

We saw this danger in very real life last week when the website 4Chan began running the names of two shooters in the Oregon community college shooting spree. The names were soon picked up by social media, and mobs of people began speculating about why they did the shooting.

Apparently the names were not linked to the shootings but were part of an ongoing shouting match over who is or is not an alpha or beta male, and, if you’re a beta, what you have to do to become an alpha. Some people post threats on the site, and others reply, sometimes offering encouragement to the original poster.

As with most Internet discussions, it’s hard to tell what is simply a rant and what is a real threat. But what makes 4chan different from most social media sites is that users are not required to use any kind of identification.

This anonymity has led to a myriad of rants from the extreme ends of the political and social spectrum, as well as claims of responsibility for numerous shootings and threats of violence.

And now the FBI is investigating the site to see if there are any connections to the actual shooter.

Again, it used to be fairly easy to tell truth from fiction. Although hoaxes were not unheard of, they seem to have reached a new level of sophistication, and danger. And it may sound old-fashioned, but maybe the old media still have a place in telling truth from lies.

Larry Burriss is a First Amendment scholar and professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he teaches introductory and media law course. At the graduate level, he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. His media commentary appears weekly in several newspapers and radio stations.

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