January 22, 2017

SCHULMAN | Engaging With the Web: A Lesson From Star Wars

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Unfortunately, I didn’t visit a tropical island over break. But on the bright side, I got to see this year’s Star Wars film: Rogue One. Although I enjoyed it, I was more hyped for last year’s film. I read so much online analysis about Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I basically spoiled the movie for myself. I mention online analysis because the engines that produce it — sites like Reddit and blogs — shaped this fall’s election and its aftermath.

We could take a lesson from the hype around Star Wars about handling online commentary. The makers of Star Wars embraced the commentary, even if it was outrageous. As a result, no one mistook real announcements for fake. The press should similarly embrace online analysis. Most claims online have a grain of truth. Instead of dismissing them, the press needs to give them context by differentiating between what is real and what isn’t.

In order to distinguish between real and fake, the press can’t ignore absurd claims as they did this fall. The press’ dismissal of 4chan and Reddit interpretations of strange DNC emails as code for child-sex-trafficking escalated to the point where a gunman entered a Washington, D.C. pizzeria to investigate. The press dismissal of these points became the argument for their validity. If the press gave these claims context by acknowledging their truth — D.C. politics are secretive, and the emails were strange — things would’ve gone differently.

The press sometimes engages with the internet’s absurd claims, but they miss the opportunity to explain which parts are true. This winter, the press embarrassed itself by reporting on a controversial dossier briefed to then president-elect Donald Trump. Things could’ve gone so much better if, instead of jumping behind unverified claims, they explained what was true about them to help the public understand the document’s significance.

The press can improve our political system by embracing commentary; unofficial commentary and analysis around last year’s Star Wars movie exemplifies this. I was shocked by the amount of accurate yet unofficial information. A toy company leaked secret characters and scrutinizing fans picked out plot points from trailers. Not all the speculation was right, but instead of ignoring it, the creators ofStar Wars stoked the fire by gradually releasing more accurate material. As a result, it was obvious what was real and what wasn’t.

Obviously, Star Wars handling online commentary about the movie isn’t the same as the press handling political commentary. The stakes around Star Wars are lower, and Star Wars gets the final word about what’s true. That being said, the press can accommodate online commentary. It needs to. The press is incredibly important and it is undermined if people don’t trust it. The press needs to guide us through internet commentary instead of ignoring it. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it! Tune in alternating Mondays this semester for my last semester.