Social media is the ultimate narcotic: addictive, demanding, pervasive, capable of causing delusions, cheap and easy to come by. The dealers and users are perfectly symbiotic.
At the same time, social media (now widely used as a singular noun) is the most effective information dispersal system in the history of humankind. It’s hard to imagine how we would get by without it, although millions of us did for much of our lives. Social media is what we have made of it, and probably not what its creators envisioned. It has the potential to unify or divide, in equal measure.
I have valued this newspaper’s social media presence as an opportunity to provide reliable information, quickly and accurately, to an audience beyond our print circulation or our geographic reach. We’ve always taken that mission seriously, no more so than when the valley faces communitywide challenges of the like we have experienced for the past seven years.
However else you feel about Facebook, it has become a vital tool for us, in conjunction with our website. During the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014, our Facebook audience exploded as we focused on providing as much information as possible, as fast as we could provide it. As I’ve said before, we trained our readers and followers to come to our Facebook page, and they trained us to keep it current and useful. The staffers who managed social media for the newspaper worked hard to honor that agreement.
But personnel changes and other factors slowed our online offerings to a trickle at times over the past few years. We were too often doing a patchwork job that wasn’t up to our own expectations. Our metrics grew stagnant.
A couple of developments have revived our online profile in the past several months. One was the arrival of social media-savvy Managing Editor Natalie Johnson, who understands how our Facebook page and website should engage our audience, and knows how to make that happen.
And then came the fires of 2021.
Back in 2014, when reliable information was crucial to the community’s survival, we affirmed and have since reiterated our pledge to the online world: We will only post things that we report and write ourselves, or that we can attribute to a verifiable source. That policy holds firm today. It goes to the heart of our credibility, and distinguishes us from the wide-open social media universe.
Since the fires of 2021 broke out, we’ve been constantly posting our own material, passing along up-to-date information from authoritative sources, and linking to other sites that can provide more detail. Natalie is on the lookout for material day and night, as you could deduce from the time stamps on some of our posted material. People have noticed. All of our metrics are up noticeably. Our online followers now total more than four times our print circulation. While we love seeing the numbers rise, our primary goal hasn’t changed.
Another reason we are adamant about vetting what we post is that there are so many opportunities out there to come across things that are just flat-out wrong or misleading, deliberately or unintentionally. We are, like many of you, seeing well-meant posts by individuals, or on group sites, that raise more questions than they answer or may perpetuate rumors, speculation and incomplete information. Something as simple as posting fire photos with no context, no explanation and no perspective can generate a panicky comment string or spread misinformation.
It’s not our job to counteract or correct those posts. I would only advise that you consider the source and draw your own conclusions. “I heard” is not confirmation. There are plenty of places to get current information from sources who know what they are talking about. It doesn’t have to be us. If you want the best overview of how the fires are going, get to know Inciweb and watch the daily updates from the incident command teams. The Okanogan County Fire District 6 Facebook page offers lots of advice on how to protect yourself and your property from the fires.
Or you could just trust Betty from Bothell’s take on the whole thing, natter with the conspiracy theory nutballs, or share complaints with armchair firefighting experts (I overhead one of them in a store last weekend, claiming he could have put out the Cedar Creek Fire all by himself with a single bulldozer).
Hundreds of firefighters including our own District 6 guys are undertaking heroic efforts to protect everything we value about the Methow. One way to honor them is by only accepting reliable information about what they are doing.