« Previous | Main | Next »

On air: Does the internet mean we're too quick to judge?

Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 12:23 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

sherrod.jpgThe Obama administration has apologised to a former civil servant Shirley Sherrod after she was dismissed following a video that was posted online apparently showing her being racist.

The video had, it later transpired, been edited in a way that removed the context of her speech - and once that became evident, the White House had to say sorry.

Obama said that the man who fired her, Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, had "jumped the gun" because "we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles."

So does the internet make us too quick to judge?

According to the BBC's Kevin Connolly in Washington, Sherrod "was apparently ruthlessly dumped by people who hadn't bothered to view her entire speech, ask for a transcript or even ask for her point of view."

Joni Hudson-Reynolds, an African-American mother who blogs on American politics, agreed:

How did Sherrod get thrown under the bus? She is a victim of the 24 hour news cycle. There is an old saying "get it first but, first get it right" and this antiquated notion does not fit into the 24 hour need to know or need to report culture. Is this a teachable moment? What have we learned?

The growth of Facebook and Twitter have given hundreds of millions of people the ability to respond instantly to any story.

When this happens all at the same time, the result can be a Twitterstorm - such as the one that engulfed the British actor Danny Dyer earlier this year, or the Daily Mail newspaper columnist Jan Moir in 2009.

Dyer suggested to a reader of his magazine column that he cut his ex-girlfriend's face in order to make other men not to want to be with her; Moir claimed there was "nothing natural" about the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately - an article published on the day of his funeral.

The result of both controversial columns was an immediate Twitterstorm. But they had vastly different outcomes.

Dyer was quickly sacked from his job at Zoo Magazine. His latest film, Pimp, was reported to have an audience of just 24 people.

But while the Daily Mail was forced to remove advertising from around the column, Moir was ultimately exonerated - The UK Press Complaints Commission ultimately decided it would not uphold any of the record 25,000 complaints it received.

Since there was nothing factually incorrect in Moir's article, the real point was simply that a large number of people had found what she had written offensive. Was this potentially a threat to free speech?

Fleet Street Blues argued that:

The point is that the Daily Mail connects with millions of ordinary people, and it does that by reflecting their views, telling them what they want to hear about and yes, playing on their prejudices. Read the rest of Jan Moir's column - sheer dresses, the Nolan Sisters, autumn weather, pumpkin scones and the evils of maternity leave. For better or worse, this is what Mail readers want, and the Mail delivers.

But the blogosphere is not always wrong.

After a blogswarm in 2004, a story broadcast by the veteran CBS journalist Dan Rather, that claimed memos critical President George W Bush when he was in training in the Air Force had been uncovered, was proved to be inaccurate.

The documents had been faked - and it was bloggers who exposed it.

And what about the many instances of "internet justice" - such as the girl exposed as a thief online, or the South Korean woman now known forever as "dog poo girl" after she let her dog foul the Seoul subway.

Does the internet make us too quick to judge? Or is there wisdom in the blogswarm?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.