The New Year has arrived and as expected, with events occurring at accelerating rates around the world which impact on us individually as well as in business. Speed of information has become an innate part of today’s communication. Immediate response has become an expectation. This for the most part is a great thing – we are stronger as a global community because of our ability to access information, and engage, quickly.
What concerns me, however, is that it is not just information that is speedily moving through the wires. Opinion, judgment and critique are magnifying messages being received not just in their numbers, but also in their interpretations. These interpretations can, very often, bring about dangerous assertions, accusations, assumptions, and influences. With such volume and pace of information, too frequently fact and fiction collide.
I rang in 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. During my time here, I have frequently been reminded of this dangerous phenomenon, baseless hype intensifies stories and in cyberspace falsehoods abound.
Since my arrival here, I have been repeatedly asked by many South Africans of the insanity that has occurred around the tragic Ebola breakout in West Africa and the misinformation around it and the global response, or lack thereof. Unqualified fear and panic by people across the globe, branding anyone coming from Africa as dangerous, even those risking their lives to help those in need of medical care, severely hindered our ability as a global community to focus our efforts and help. In the insanity – as the story spread in the media and on social media, ever-increasing disregard was given to the underlying facts of realities of transmission and geographic distances. Those trying to provide the facts were drowned out by the volume of noise – and often attacked when their views didn’t support and build the ‘story’. It is clear to see, and feel, how we are now becoming citizens in a world communicating at a level of speed that can only be defined as ‘hysteria’.
Another incident brought this reality even closer to home. As happens during peak holiday seasons, restaurant reservations can, and do go awry. In this common flurry of bookings busyness, a straightforward service error at one of our hotels bizarrely became branded as a racist incident. The fact is this had absolutely nothing to do with discrimination. Still, by categorising this with an important social ‘hot button’ make for good storytelling by those who gave little concern to the facts, but deemed themselves a ‘victim’, thereby in fact diminishing this significant issue. What I witnessed was an open environment for commentary of those uninvolved yet of strong opinion, and a communications fire was ignited.
In such cases, the real story gets lost. This is why in the final analysis everyone loses. The debate drags everyone involved back into conflict, difference, and society as a whole is divided. In this particular case, the allegations hurt deeply as our family has spent a lifetime, literally, building businesses grounded in ethics, equal opportunity, and transparency.
How has this happened?
When I pause, my own thoughts turn to question how we have traded off honesty and integrity of our communication in return for speed of response, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion; the source of the problem is actually in our hands, each and every one of us.
‘Media’ is a generic term describing a means of mass communication. Essential within any media format, be it mainstream or more independent media, is the use of common sense. Major media networks have a job – to gain viewership. Some do it through commitment to communicating the truth behind a story. Others choose to be inflammatory, because that’s what sells. For this reason, even with major, long established media, it is important to read behind the headlines, finding the heart of the story, unfiltered.
Still, it is social media platforms – Twitter and Facebook for example, that are at the centre of the information storm we all face. Where once there was only traditional media conveying information that was deemed ‘need to know’ (and which they had first verified), social media has unlocked a world of citizen journalism that allows each and every one of us to be ‘the media’. Inherently unverified, social media has enabled us to share fact and fiction, information and opinion, with the click of a keystroke on our mobile phones, our tablets, and our laptops. Often underestimating or disregarding the potential effect and consequences.
Sadly, this power to immediately say what one thinks others need to know, the ease of spreading a story (verified or not), and the rush of ego that comes with seeing one’s name and comments online, has created a global society of unfiltered, unapologetic, often unconsidered opinion. Social media has become hurtfully unsocial. I know that everyone has a voice, but maybe everyone shouldn’t have a voice – for it’s a responsibility.
What should we do with this damaging, and at times irresponsible, hastening trend? How can we still the noise, bringing us back to comprehensively audible communication that we can trust, and use for good?
It all comes down to the need to take responsibility for the most powerful resource we all have – our words.
With the new year just beginning, and each new day brings more information, we need to think carefully about what we say, pausing to understand what messages may lie within what we are about to share.
Importantly, we need to once again become comfortable with an important opportunity, the power of silence.