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Psychology of Technology: How Social Media Can Ruin Lives

We all know the power of the Internet for good. It offers a wealth of information, connects people who are miles and cultures apart, and allows news to be disseminated instantly. But I recently learned of a young man whose reputation, and perhaps his life, has been devastated because of information, later proved to be erroneous, that was circulated through email and social media. His story illustrates the dark side of information in the 21st century and confirms our need to ensure that, in our real-time, instant-access world, the information that is spread through cyberspace is both timely and accurate.

Here’s what happened. This young man, I’ll call him Steve, was stopped by police in a small Midwestern town in which he grew up following reports of suspicious behavior (he was taking photos of houses and businesses as part of research for documenting his family tree). A search of the man’s car revealed rope, duct tape, a ski mask, a pair of black gloves, and a hammer in the trunk (the supposed tools of the trade of kidnappers and child molesters). But, as there was no evidence of a crime, Steve was allowed to continue on his way. Nothing that unusual or untoward so far.

Here’s where things start to get out of hand. After the stop, the local police contacted the police department of Steve’s current town of residence and that town’s police mistakenly told them that he was a suspect in a 2002 local child abduction/molestation case. Despite the fact that this information was wrong and Steve had no criminal record beyond a few traffic violations, one of the police officers passed this information, that included his name and photo, on to administrators at the local schools via an email. In response, school officials copied parts of the officer’s email into a notice that was sent to parents. From there, the high-performance engine of social media took over. Out of genuine concern I’m sure, someone posted the notice that included Steve’s identity and the unfounded allegations on Facebook and the misinformation went viral.

There are several unsettling aspects of this unfortunate use of social media. First, as I have noted in a previous blog post, the speed and ease of spreading information online can preclude people from taking the time to think deliberately about issues and decisions before acting on them. The result? A lot of poor judgments and bad decisions with the associated collateral damage.

Second, as we know from media events from the recent past, once information makes it into cyberspace, regardless of its veracity, it will remain there and can haunt people in perpetuity.

Third, research has shown that information that makes it to the Web continues to be believed even when later information is posted that demonstrates it to be false. So, no matter how hard people who are sullied by misinformation or downright lies try to clear their name, there is no way to remove that harmful cyber footprint.

Would much of this sad tale have happened without social media? Of course. Bad things happening to good people and people making poor decisions didn’t start with the public launch of the Web in 1994. But, to paraphrase the Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker, the blast area wasn’t nearly as large nor the damage as extensive.

There have been more egregious examples of how social media can be used as weapons, for example, the growing problem of cyberbullying through mean-spirited web sites and texting as tragically exemplified by the suicide of Megan Meier in 2006. But Steve’s story demonstrates how the reputation and perhaps life of an innocent person can be summarily ruined as a result of an equally innocent, yet misconstrued, occurrence, poor due diligence and decision making on the part of people who should know better, and, ultimately, the power of social media.

Note: Some of the information included in this post was obtained from a local newspaper article reporting on the story. Ordinarily, I would include a link to the article, but to protect Steve from further attention, I am not doing so.