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Don't Rely on Social Media for News, Even Ours

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By Enjolie Esteve

The past two weeks have contained nothing short of a series of debacles. First, I found out Kim Kardashian is dating my big-brother-in-my-head Kanye West. Yeezus, take the wheel -- and drive far away from the Kardashian klan. Next, I found out my actual big brother's city of Dallas was struck by multiple tornadoes.

Luckily, he was left unscathed. Unluckily, a natural disaster of other sorts soon hit Reno -- rumors of an HIV scare. Damn you, gossip folks.

It goes without saying that someone who is a misanthropic, edgy, special snowflake such as myself doesn't use social media. Aside from temporary reactivations of my Facebook account during moments of weakness and a Twitter account that was forced upon me for work purposes, I don't "like" the useless information people post about doing their laundry. I'm also not deluded enough to think people care about my ideas -- except when forcing them on you through this column, of course.

Because of my negligence toward all things social media, I didn't hear about the HIV rumors until an anonymous commenter criticized the Sagebrush reporters for not investigating "that UNR student who was on drugs and knowingly spread HIV within Argenta." Less than a week later, things were brought to a messy level. Facebook and Twitter posts were filled with claims about where the so-called HIV outbreak started, listing someone in Greek Life and a dorm resident as the source. The beastly rumors continued to spread like herpes (too soon?). Unsurprisingly, people bought into the unfounded claims. Deductive reasoning is so last year -- the Wolf Pack stays with the trends.

Social media is like a post-adolescent game of telephone, minus having to sit in a circle next to those weird children who constantly smell like grape jelly. Messages, such as rumors of HIV spreading throughout campus, have become so convoluted.

If an unfounded rumor of an HIV scare turning into a "fact" on Facebook and Twitter isn't indicative of the problem of social media, I don't know what is.

The Sagebrush indulged in its own game of telephone last week when it posted about the supposed HIV scare on its "Opening the News" Facebook page, asking students, "Let's figure this out -- are the rumors true? If so, how did this happen? How many people have been diagnosed? When? Share this post so we can figure this out ASAP."

This move was irresponsible and only perpetuated rumors, giving a platform for them to spread further.

Sure, it's great to start dialogue with readers about what is going on campus or outside the "sticky campus" bubble, but discretion should be used when deciding to rely on people for information. The root of a supposed HIV outbreak isn't something to get information about from random people on Facebook -- that should be done through reporting. The main goal of journalism is to work toward the betterment of one's community through the dissemination of information. Allowing people to accuse dorm residents and residential life employees of starting the rumors based on unfounded claims isn't conducive to that goal. Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate responsibility.

Due to social media, rumors of HIV spreading throughout campus were treated as facts. Now, the truth is more difficult to understand than a Yeah Yeah Yeah's lyric.

As much as some praise social media for its ability to connect people to others and the world, it's also proven to be detrimental to both people and the integrity of journalism itself. For every benefit of social media -- such as the Arab Spring -- there is a drawback. It allows for people to irresponsibly spread information. And because original posters of these messages become buried in retweets and re-blogs, accountability is lost.

There have been multiple instances of reputable news sources tweeting incorrect information due to the negligent haste that comes along with trying to break a story first. We're not talking little factual errors, either. For instance, The New York Times, CNN and Reuters were just a few of several news outlets that reported Rep. Gabrielle Giffords died after she was shot in the head during a 2011 Tuscon, Ariz. shooting.

The fast-paced world of social media seems to have altered news outlets' priorities. Accuracy no longer seems to be No. 1. Instead, it's been replaced by immediacy. But what good is "scooping" other outlets when journalists run the risk of spreading false information, perpetuating dangerous rumors and ultimately losing credibility?

I saw a few people voice their frustrations on Facebook and Twitter regarding how news outlets, including the oh-so-reputable KRNV Channel 4 News, exacerbated the "HIV outbreak" story by releasing reports without doing enough -- or any -- reporting. Some went so far as to deem the whole journalism industry as corrupt and shady.

Don't be ignorant -- journalism is a business, just like everything else in this giant market system we call the United States. This business model encourages competition and rewards the efficient, reliable and trustworthy. This is why The National Enquirer will never be on the top of any sane person's reading list, despite the number of legitimate stories they've broken. While journalism shouldn't be disregarded as a lie-spreading business, we should hold outlets accountable for enabling the spread of misinformation. We all should also stop being so naive and take into account the falsities that spread via sites like Twitter.

The main lessons to be learned from the past two weeks? 1) Always use social media as a news filter, not as a news source. 2) Never have unprotected sex, and 3) Don't move to Dallas.

Enjolie Esteve studies journalism and philosophy.

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