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Online commenters blend fact with fiction

• Jan 11, 2017 at 5:00 PM

There's a section in the nearly 600-page 2016 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook — a journalist's bible to all things writing and reporting — that warns against mistaking the internet for an encyclopedia.

The excerpt reads: "The internet is a sprawling information repository. Anything you find should be assessed and vetted with the same care that you use for everything else. ... Be especially careful about websites and social networks that allow anyone to contribute text, photos and other information."

We encourage — better yet, challenge — you to employ the same pause in thinking in your daily life.

In the world of social media and online commenting, fiction and fact are often blended, generating a fast-moving flow of news that works like the age-old game of "telephone" on a much larger level.

In news stories, we do our best to deal in facts by verifying information with highly reliable sources. If it doesn't come on the record from a trusted source, it isn't reported.

In crime, there are police and prosecutors who provide information. There are arrests and charges filed. Court documents are public record and citable forms of information. In government, there are city officials, public documents and meetings from which we routinely generate stories.

Often we report on fluid situations where the story changes or develops on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis. As we confirm information in those cases, we report it. We post these stories to our website and then share them to social media to get the confirmed information out.

In recent weeks, though, we've been troubled by the unconfirmed and even wild accusations that have made it back to us in the form of online comments to these stories.

For example, a 31-year-old Petoskey man was arrested last month and charged with felony assault with a dangerous weapon as police and prosecutors allege he sprayed a fire extinguisher at a Boyne Highlands security guard who was trying to evacuate people from the resort's main lodge after a fire broke out on the third floor.

Those are the latest facts in what is most certainly an ongoing story. But the immediacy of today's internet society demands information faster, and when it's not available or unconfirmed, commenters draw conclusions or report hearsay as though it is certain.

In the instance of the Boyne Highlands fire, claims are being made that are not tied to known facts in the case. Local authorities are awaiting the findings of a Michigan State Police investigation, which is expected sometime soon.

There is no information in court documents that ties the man who has been arrested to the fire. Authorities say he and the security guard were in a hallway when the alleged act occurred, but we don't know other key facts like if that hallway was even on the same floor as where the fire started.

Along those same lines, in Charlevoix there have been two devastating fires a block apart in the downtown area over the past two months. To date, there is no evidence either fire was intentionally set, nor is there anything linking them. Yet, if you head to social media, commenters are not shy to suggest a conspiracy.

Within hours of posting our story on the second fire, which occurred Christmas Eve, there were social media posts alleging a serial arsonist was on the loose in Charlevoix, while others remarked the fires were suspicious and something nefarious was going on in the community.

Our point is these often baseless claims are harmful. They are so often not factual and yet are spread to others by those who read them as in a game of "telephone." By the end of the line, who knows what's true and what's not?

In a time when nearly everyone has a social media voice, it's up to you what kind of information you want to spread. And to those reading social media for updates, please heed the Associated Press' advice.


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