Ignorance rife on social media

17:00, May 01 2014

Heard of Barraco Barner? Possibly not. But according to a 20-year-old English beautician, he's the president of Britain and he really shouldn't be getting involved in Ukraine's problems.

Here, starkly laid bare, is one of the downsides of social media and the digital information revolution. Instant opinion, zero knowledge.

Gemma Worrall, from Blackpool, wrote on Twitter that it was "scary" that "our president Barraco Barner" was tangling with Russia.

But the truly scary thing is that someone who thought that Britain had a president, and that his name was Barraco Barner, could so innocently display their rank ignorance for the world to see.

Worrall's tweet shines a light on the existence of people whose view of the world is formed not from the printed word, but from whatever they happen to overhear.

If she had seen Barack Obama's name in print, it's unlikely she would have been so gravely misled on how it's spelt. But clearly, she'd only ever heard it – perhaps from customers chatting in the beauty parlour where she works, or from a TV set playing in the background.

Add to that Worrall's obvious belief that the world needed to hear her considered views on Barraco Barner and Russia, and you have a lethal confection of foolishness and conceit. On the other hand, these things are self-correcting. As her gaffe was re-tweeted worldwide, thousands gleefully pounced, sneering at her error. You might say this is a good thing. A mistake was promptly exposed and corrected. But in the process, another unlovely aspect of social media was laid bare: namely, the propensity for abuse and bullying by anonymous cowards. Never in human history has it been easier for someone like Worrall to express their thoughts so instantly or freely, without the moderating intervention of someone who might save them from embarrassment. And never has it been easier for others to join in mob nastiness. You could argue that this is all very democratic. But is it progress?

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I have doubts, too, about the explosion in online opinion, even when it's written by people who know very well who Barack Obama is and how his name is spelt.

University of Otago political scientist Bryce Edwards collates online political comment every day and emails a summary to people who are interested in politics and curious to know what others are thinking.

What's notable is that the volume increases with every week, to the point where it has become almost indigestible.

On Monday I counted 67 commentaries on the subject of Shane Jones's departure from the Labour Party. These ranged from generally dispassionate comment in mainstream media to partisan rants by bloggers from both sides of the political fence. The previous Thursday, Edwards disseminated 51 commentaries on the same subject.

As political comment proliferates and the tone becomes more trenchant, so the temptation to tune out – or at least to exercise greater discretion about how much of it one bothers to read – increases. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. In the early days of the internet, someone cleverly said that trying to keep up with the flow of information it unleashed was like drinking from a fire hose. I don't know what you'd compare it with now. Having one's say has never been easier, but the clamour and static sometimes threatens to overwhelm reasoned debate.

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In this paper a couple of weeks ago, Ross Bell of the Drug Foundation claimed New Zealanders are "comparatively high" users of marijuana and alcohol.

In fact, OECD figures for 2011 show per capita consumption of liquor in New Zealand was 9.5 litres. That's exactly the OECD average – hardly something to get in a panic about, especially when you consider that some countries on the table, such as Turkey and Israel, have low levels of consumption because of religious factors.

New Zealand was placed 10th of the 19 OECD countries for which statistics were available. More complete figures for 2009 show we drank less, per head, than comparable countries such as Britain and Australia.

What's more, Ministry of Health figures show that drinking across all NZ age groups is in steady decline, and "binge drinking" by young people – contrary to what panic merchants like Bell will tell you – has fallen off sharply over the past 10 years.

These facts appear not to matter to the neo-wowser lobby, which continues to promote the myth that we need to be protected from the machinations of wicked "booze barons".

And just who are these booze barons? The term might have meant something in the 1930s, but these days it's just a crudely emotive propaganda tool.

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