Consumer, the hot new medium
Users of WhatsApp, and social media in general, are least interested in checking the authenticity of ‘news’, let alone seek a second opinion
Marshall McLuhan, in his book Understanding Media published more than 50 years ago, categorized media into two types—hot media and cool media. Some media, according to McLuhan, provoke us, involve us and seek to make us react. Those, according to him, were ‘hot’. Then there is media that is one-way—you receive the message passively and are cool to their touch—those are ‘cool’ media. I wonder what he would say if he were to examine the kind of messages that consumers share on social media. Will he term some of his friends ‘hot’ and some ‘cool’?
The concept of hot and cold media flashed in front of me as I saw the waiter serve us hot soup, but my host was getting even more heated up. He explained that he had just received a message in one of the WhatsApp groups about a new storm approaching Mumbai shores. But apparently the ‘forwarded as received’ friend had shared news that was more than a few years old. My host excused himself, admitted he was being impolite, but wanted to shut up his friend before he inflicted more harm on the poor citizens of Mumbai. That done, we went back to our soup.
Obviously, the owners of WhatsApp are aware of this disease. The manic habit that is gripping everyone with a smartphone to quickly forward whatever they receive to all other groups that they are a member of, sometimes sending it multiple times.
The full-page ad released by Facebook, the owners of WhatsApp, in the newspapers talked about ‘10 Tips for Spotting False News’. From being sceptical of headlines, examining the URL, investigating the source and spotting unusual formatting to considering photos, inspecting dates, checking evidence, looking for other reports and checking for intentionally false stories, the ad pointed to 10 tips. I was looking for the statement ‘Check it with Google Guru’, but obviously that was not one of the tips; in my book that would be Tip No. 1. I would have said ‘don’t forward anything unless you have checked it with Google’, but that will be asking for a lot.
In yet another episode, a friend forwarded an inane old story saying ‘forwarded as received’; to which a friend, tongue firmly in cheek, asked: ‘Why did you forward as received’. I think there was a bigger message in what he asked.
At a forum on news media’s responsibility, one of the questions that was debated was ‘Will journalism as we know it die? Will we see the rise of the citizen journalist?’ No doubt citizen journalists are of vital importance during a natural calamity. We saw that happen in Mumbai during the recent monsoon flooding; citizen journalists were sharing news about roads to avoid, trains to avoid etc. But are common citizens competent to become journalists? And is there something like a ‘journalistic dharma’ was a question from the floor.
The wise editors on the dais opined that a journalist cannot write a story unless he has done adequate research on the topic. So each story has to be cross-referenced. If you are writing about a company, you have to seek the opinion of the company and also the opinion of a neutral subject matter expert. Unfortunately today journalists too are encouraged to push out news at the speed of Twitter. So the new rule seems to be push out news that is unsubstantiated ‘as received’, do some background check and tweet it again with a reference. Then write a full post on the subject with journalistic due diligence.
Unfortunately, all this is too complicated for our WhatsApp-happy friends. They are least interested in checking the authenticity of the ‘news’, let alone seek a second opinion. It is all about getting it out before anyone else, truth be damned.
I suppose this is destroying the value of a very powerful social media tool, WhatsApp. So I believe what Facebook has attempted to do is just right to preserve the value of the social media phenomenon. The big question is, will consumers really read and follow the 10 tips given out by Facebook, or did Facebook get it wrong by asking for too much? Should it have made it a lot simpler and said check with Google, or maybe if that is asking for too much, should they have said ‘search and check on Facebook’?
Behavioural economics points to the problem consumers face when given many options. The famous jam experiment that Sheena Iyengar speaks of in her book Art of Choosing where by displaying too many flavours in front of consumers you may actually get lower sales than if you displayed just three or four. In a similar vein, I wonder if Facebook should have stuck to just three tips. Finally, it is bold and brave of Facebook to try and cool down the hot social media. I am sure McLuhan would have appreciated the sentiment behind it.
Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is a brand strategist, author and founder of Brand-Building.com, an independent brand advisory. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org