Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Internet Rumors

Working in a world of Internet rumours

From The Statesman
ND Batra
The Internet has enhanced the global supply chain of knowledge, research and education, fuelled global business, and speeded up the flow of capital to places where it is needed. It has also given us alternative sources of news, along with gossips and rumours.

Sometime information, genuine and fake, gets mixed up and creates tremendous problems, especially when it is focused on a specific target, whether it is a politician, educational institution or business. Fighting rumours on the Internet is absolutely necessary because if they get out of control they can damage an individual or corporation’s reputation. Regardless of all the fact checking and corrigendum provided, what matters the most in people’s minds is perception.

Perception is reality. Reputation is based on perception. During the presidential election, for example, according to a nationwide survey, 90 percent Americans heard the rumour that Barack Obama was a Muslim and in spite of repeated denials, 22 percent people persisted in believing that he was a Muslim. But the Obama Internet-savvy gargantuan election machine squelched every rumour about him being a Muslim and his wife Michelle having uttered racial epithets like “whiteys” in a church. Mr Obama emerged as a great communicator, which contributed to his winning the White House.

Mr Obama’s presidential opponent Senator John McCain and his running mate Alaska Governor Sara Palins too were victims of malicious Internet rumors, which did not hurt them; they were able to manage them successfully. Because of their ability to reach people directly through television commercials and access to the news media, most politicians can set their records straight and silence or even kill rumors. Some of them learn to live with low-level rumors and continue working.

But corporations, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion all the time. Today the corporate global works in a 24-hour media environment that includes, apart from the traditional news media, citizen journalists who twitter and blog ceaselessly without any fact-checking and editorial gatekeeping. In fact professional journalists whose reputation depends upon accuracy listen to the daily buzz of citizen journalists. The situation is very complicated for businesses because they don’t know how to respond to millions of voices of the ever proliferating new media formats.

Instead of submitting to the headless monster, the challenge is how a corporation can turn new media into its advantage. What should be a corporation’s strategy in dealing with the rise of new decentralized unfiltered media protected by freedom of the press? Last month McDonald’s issued an unusual statement to nip a rumor floating on the Internet that the company was linked with the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza. It was meant to hurt the company in Arab and Muslim countries and therefore it became a matter of urgency to issue a firm denial: “McDonald’s donating profits to the war in Israel… These rumours are absolutely false. McDonald’s never has and never will support war efforts in any area of the world through sales and profits in our restaurants.” Ignoring the threat of this rumour would have been disastrous for the company.

About the same time last month there was an anti-Israel demonstration in London that attacked a Starbucks store simply because its CEO Howard Schultz is Jewish and has been an Israel supporter, for which of course he had received an award sometime ago. The demonstration was triggered by wild rumours on the Intent, including mass e-mails and texting that both Starbucks and McDonalds “are donating their next 2 weeks of earned revenue to Israel.” It urged people to “boycott them and forward this message immediately.” Because the company took prompt steps, the rumor did not harm the company at least in terms of marketing. In 2003 the Starbucks rumor was the other way around. An e-mail originated rumor said that Sawbucks Corporation was closing its operation in Israel. The e-mail gave no explanation though the message created the impression that the company was joining Arab countries’ sponsored boycott of American businesses in Israel. Starbucks did not ignore the rumor; it started its own tactful campaign to squelch the rumor and explained that closing its business outlets in Israel was purely a business decision, and that the company would return for business when conditions changed.

Like businesses, universities also live on their reparation. Last year Samuel G Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, recounted in The New York Times how the University of Kentucky tried hard to kill a vicious e-mail rumour that the university had dropped a popular course on the Holocaust in order to avoid hurting Muslim sensibilities, which was a blatant lie. But in spite of official denials, press releases and corrective media reports to the contrary, the e-mail rumour kept spreading from individual to individual, Listserv to Listserv, wrote Prof. Freedman.

This was the time when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad had called an international conference denouncing the Holocaust, the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis, as a figment of imagination, a myth. But of course when University of Kentucky continued teaching the Holocaust course, the rumour died.

Although we love our blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other interactive social networking sites, the grey side of new media is the quickened pace of myriad Internet rumours, whistle-blowing, and other negative publicity about local and transnational companies.

Rumours appeal to our worst collective fears about powerful people, institutions or corporations, especially those who wield tremendous influence on our daily lives. As rumours spread, they not only tend to hurt their targets or victims; they as well reveal our mental state as to who we are.

PS: Imagine if someone had started rumours about Satyam before its founder Ramalinga Raju had outed himself as a swindler.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University)

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