Here’s a little quiz for you. Which one of the following is true?
- You can buy canned unicorn meat on the internet
- The new health care bill contains a provision for “death panels” who would decide whether people should live or die based on their worth to society
- Rachel Maddow is a lesbian vampire
- J. K. Rowling is considering an 8th Harry Potter book
Answers: #1 was an April Fool’s joke, #2 and #3 have been (repeatedly) proven false and #4 is not confirmed, although Rowling has not officially debunked it. But I found all of these “facts” easily on the internet (links provided as a public service).
There used to be a time when you could tell the difference between truth, speculation and outright lies. You knew because the “real” newspaper looked respectable, while the National Enquirer had pictures that looked too obviously faked accompanied by headlines like “500 Ft. Jesus Appears at U.N.”
One of the effects of social media and the internet is that we are on information overload. Anyone can publish her thoughts (case in point: this blog) and it can be online in seconds for the world to see. One of the primary problems with this is that there is no discrimination between what is opinion, what is information and what is fact. One colleague described the internet as being like a big library — with all of the books thrown off of shelves and piled on the floor. I think that’s a decent analogy, but I would add that it would be even more applicable if that library pile also had personal diaries, hand-scribbled doodles and letters to grandma mixed in with the books.
The internet and social media have leveled the playing field for personal expression, but have also created a universe where there is no quality discrimination. Anyone can say anything, no matter how outrageous, and as soon as someone else cites it and says “I read it on the internet,” it becomes true. Take the Rachel Maddow story, for example. Some kook named (and isn’t this the first clue) Billy Bob Neck posted a self-made video on YouTube claiming that Maddow was a vampire because she has two freckles on her neck. Maddow joked about it on her program, and The Raw Story “outed” Billy Bob Neck as comedian Paul Day, who invented Billy Bob during the Kerry campaign. The last fact took me a bit of time to find out, since I had to wade through the 24,000 hits I got when I googled “Rachel Maddow lesbian vampire.”
Just for fun, here’s the video that started all of this:
What does this have to do with the arts? My first impulse is to say that this is one time when we can be glad we fall so far under the radar, because it’s less likely that we will need to be in a position to refute either April Fool’s jokes or hurtful lies. However, I know many in the arts who have been the victims of the rumor mill, of people repeating things they “know” to be true.
Case in point: The Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. In 2005, following several years of deficits, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay announced that it was getting out of the presenting business rather than take the chance that subsequent seasons would require the University to subsidize losses and jeopardize academic programs. An independent not-for-profit called Weidner Center Presents took over the programming duties at the Weidner. But the seasons were more modest than they had been before, there was less money for marketing, and five years later I still hear people talking about how sad it is that “The Weidner Center shut its doors.”
How can we deal with this? We all know how difficult it is to refute a rumor once it has gotten into the realm of Something Everybody Knows. But perhaps here social media can be a big help. If we are as relentless as the rumor mill, we can change hearts and minds…can’t we?
What do you think? Do you have examples of organizations that have been able to turn the rumor mill around?