I found myself spreading a little bit of gossip this weekend. Something that involved two people I know only as acquaintances. I told the ‘facts’ (as I had heard them), without embellishment or judgement. Indulged in a little biblical psychobabble (of the ‘let him without sin cast the first stone’ variety) and rounded off my little information session with “either way, it’s really none of my business”. Catching myself squarely in a lie. I had spread the news. I had made it my business.
I tried to tell myself that it was ok – I had only told two people I trust – who are not, themselves, gossips. But who was I kidding? McG is a small place. If I knew and told, others had done the same. I was one of them now and I didn’t like the feeling at all. Especially as I had spent a fair portion of last week telling people off for essentially doing the same thing,
Yes I know we all do it. And for the most part it is all pretty harmless. Sociologists say it is the way we first bonded, how we formed alliances and chose sides. And it worked pretty well until the internet. That changed everything.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are a dentist living in a small town somewhere in the USA. Let’s say you have a fondness for hunting and you shoot a lion for sport. It turns out that big cat was the symbol of a nation. And that nation is impoverished and in Africa. Suddenly your stupid-ass decision to kill a beautiful animal takes on the added weight of race, privilege, wealth and entitlement. Word gets out before all of the facts are known. People publish the name of your business and the address of your home. There are pictures of your family spread across thousands of news sites. You’ve gone viral. You’re a global brand now. All you can hear from your shrouded house is the baying of a million keyboards.
You are being hunted. And we didn’t even have to leave home to track you down.
Someone who loves you, probably your mother, will tell you – ‘hey, there is some upside’. The speed of news cycles means that your global shaming won’t last that long (though it will feel like an eternity). In a month or so, the caravan will have moved on and the dogs will be still. It will be some other poor bastard’s chance to be crucified. But you know it won’t end there. Mom means well but she doesn’t understand the power of this beast. Your name is out, plastered across megabit billboards. Un-erasable, indelible, tattooed into hard drives the world over: eternally accessible. One pointed finger and you will back where you started. It will never go away. Just ask Monica Lewinsky – she carries a gun these days. And not for shooting lions.
Each time any of us shares a piece of news without checking its veracity or provenance, we are doing exactly what I did this weekend. We are gossiping. And the damage that gossip can do is far greater than we can ever imagine. The dentist from Minnesota’s life is ruined. His family and employees are irrevocably stained too. And the lion is still dead.
The internet has made the world a village. And we’ve become its idiots.