Converged communicators who are interested in the legal, ethical, and journalistic implications of news on social media may want to read this unpleasant story from Brazil. According to the BBC, an unofficial Facebook news page is being blamed for a killing in a town not far from the enormous urban complex surrounding Sao Paulo. The administrators of the page perpetuated false rumors of child kidnappings in the neighborhood, in spite of official denials from the police. These rumors built online over a period of several weeks. Eventually, panic grew in the area until a woman was beaten and publicly killed by a mob, which appears to have been motivated in part by a frenzied search to track down the (nonexistent) kidnapper.
The story may be sensational, but the results – and the ethical implications – are real. As noted in the article, Brazil has no law against spreading false rumors through social media. In the United States, because of First Amendment freedoms, enforcing such a law would be difficult, if not impossible. But even though the law may not ban them outright, converged (and even non-converged) communicators know that false posts in the online universe are both damaging and distressingly common. It’s yet another example that actions that are legal may not be ethical – and a shocking example to illustrate the terrible consequences that can occur when misleading online information meets poor media literacy.