At first, it appeared to be a tremendous scoop for the noble ideal of citizen journalism. On Friday morning, on CNN's iReport, an unfiltered website to which any self-proclaimed "citizen journalist" can contribute, a post by somebody called johntw announced that Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, "had been rushed to the ER just a few hours after suffering a major heart attack."
There was the inevitable immediate chain reaction on the horde-like Internet. Bloggers, Twitterers and Apple-obsessed mobs of instant-messagers picked up the story and spread it around the world instantaneously. Apple shares on the NASDAQ exchange plunged over 5% and it wasn't until 20 minutes after the authoritative Silicon Alley Insider reported Apple's denial of the news that CNN took the incorrect post down from iReporter. No, the seemingly immortal Jobs hadn't really had a heart attack and now the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is eager to interview "johntw" to determine if the citizen journalist was also an investor who might have made a most uncitizen-like killing on the stock market from the false post.
What is so shocking about this story is that anyone should have taken anything published on iReport with even the slightest degree of seriousness. Launched in February of this year, CNN's iReport is designed as an "unedited" and "unfiltered" news resource for "your stories". As CNN's me-too attempt to jump on the citizen journalism bandwagon, anyone can literally publish anything on the unedited iReport. it isn't surprising that, in contrast with curated blogs like the Huffington Post, Silicon Alley Insider or Tech Crunch, the site is a chaos of amateurish opinion, childish dogma and shameful vulgarity. Amongst today's lead "news" stories on iReport, for example, are rant-filled posts entitled "Life is so easy when one hates in the name of GOD!", "Ask your witchcraft doctor" and "This what I think of all the Republican supporters and their lies of Obama".
In 1848, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay wrote his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The iReport misreport of Steve Jobs' heart attack fits very much into Mackay's withering scepticism about the wisdom of the crowd. Today's extraordinary popular Web 2.0 delusion is the idea that anyone without any journalistic training or experience can accurately report the news. A cure for this delusion is a visit to CNN's iReport. A few minutes with these citizen-lunatics should convince even the most deluded critics of mainstream media that professional journalism is more valuable than the "reporting" of amateurs.
So has anything changed since Mackay published his classic in 1848? Yes, technology has changed the speed with which delusions are circulated around the world. The crowd delusions that Mackay described -- the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century or the South Sea Company bubble of the early 18th century -- were spread relatively slowly compared to the almost instantaneous standards of today's digital media. The mistaken reports of Steve Jobs' heart attack were spread within seconds by the online mob whose whole raison d'etre lies in the spreading of unsubstantiated rumor. How worrying, then, that in an iReporter age when we desperately need meticulous professional journalists to protect us from popular delusions, most serious newspapers are laying off reporters and editors.
Somebody just emailed me a link to a medical alert about Truth. Yes, Truth just suffered a major heart attack and has been rushed to ER. I guess it must be true. I read it on the Internet.