A group of people in a park

Wayne Chiang stole the cookie, from the cookie, jar.
Who me?
Yes you!
Couldn’t be!
Then who?

How about someone who the police actually suspected at the time? If you’re confused as to what I’m talking about, allow me to fill you in.

Basically, Wayne Chiang, who happens to be asian-american, and happens to like guns, and happens to go to Virgina Tech, happened to be accused by “the Internet” of the massacre at that college. For a firsthand account, it’s probably best to go to the source. A link to his livejournal is viewable the bottom of this article.

What are the implications of this? Well, for starters, how about what it’s done to this guy’s life. On his journal he asks for no sympathy, and states repeatedly that people should focus on the real tradgedy, not the problems the false accusations have caused for him. But, they have caused problems.

Maybe more importantly, this seems to say something about using the Internet as a source of news. Nowadays it’s hard to dispute the notion that more and more people are turning to the web to learn about what’s going on in the real world. In all honesty, there’s a lot to be said for that practice. A user can learn about exactly what he or she wants to, when he or she wants to, from as many sources as he or she wants to, and in as much depth as he or she wants to.

In the 90’s sci-fi film, “Starship Troopers”, a futuristic, interactive news service continually asked users “Would you like to know more?”. The Internet does that and more. It’s a great theory for information sources, and in general it works out pretty well in practice too.

But what we have to remember is that there’s very little control over the content. Sure, we can balance that out a little by verifying information from various sources. But when all those sources are based on the same misinformation, as in Wayne Chiang’s case, the mistake becomes a chain-reaction, and a very believable one at that. Especially when users get excited about the prospect of being “the news-breaker”, and begin forwarding the information to all of their friends and co-workers.

You could also point out that the same problem occurs in other media as well. News networks often cite misinformation, or at best, misleading information, and the “corrections” section in some newspapers is practically a daily column. In reality, no news source is as reliable as we’d like to think.

So what is the lesson here? How about the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” If we take Internet news with a grain of salt instead of getting excited, and if we consider the source before we pull up our contacts list and start forwarding away, we’ll be doing ourselves, our friends, and people like Wayne Chiang a big favor.