Rumors fly in the face of facts, good sense
This past Friday an unfortunate crime occurred in Wellington: a young woman was raped by a man wearing a clown mask.
At the time I am writing this police are still investigating and questioning some people. But I don't want to talk about the crime, I want to discuss what happened after the crime.
In the "old days" when something happened in the area, facts, and more often rumors, spread through word of mouth, either person to person or by the phone lines.
Now with social media, such as Facebook, the word goes either faster and farther. When someone posts something on Facebook, for instance, it may go instantaneously to hundreds, even thousands of people. And then those people can send it on to their friends who are not part of the first wave. A message, true or not, can go faster than any wildfire.
All of us know the example and have seen how stories change when passed from person to person. There is an old story that goes around about sitting around a campfire with a group of people and each person whispering from one to another a story they heard from the last. Then at the end of the line the person that orginally started the story hears it from the last person and confirms or denies that it is the same story. It never is. Human frailties and imaginations always change stories, often just slightly, but enough so that the next person changes it a little too.
A good example of this tendency is demonstrated in Disney film called "Heavyweights" about a kid named Josh at a camp where Ben Stiller is the director. Stiller's character throws Josh out of the camp and the remaining boys stand there looking at his bed with its folded up mattress and start to speculate about what has happened to him. The rumor begins that he was thrown out and his parents were so mad at him that he could not go home and had to live in the street. The movie shows the rumor being passed around, through the cafeteria and into other quarters of the camp, and each time it is told the story changes. Finally someone says that Josh is gone because he died.
This weekend's rumor mill in Carbon County was a lot like this. It started out with people telling about the crime, bizarre in the fact the guy wore a clown mask. From there it grew as the rumor on social media and mouth to mouth spread. Soon he had on an entire clown suit. Then it was reported by someone that a number of sexual assaults had taken place across the county. Finally, on Sunday the rumor had turned into that the perpetrator was not only a rapist but a murderer who was now killing little children.
It was easy to feel the fear people had as you talked with them about the situation and the messages that were being sent on Facebook. The fear was real, but the stories were not.
It didn't help that some media outlets picked right up on it and helped to spread the good word. Some reported the initial event and then others contacted police in towns outside of Wellington who basically refused comment because they knew nothing about other possible crimes committed by the same man. Instead of taking it as a no comment, at least one outlet reported that the officer would not commit to a comment and then that outlet went on to tell people to be careful, to lock their doors and to not go anywhere alone. There was no news there so what was added just made many people read into it that there was a problem across the county. Then links to it were posted which then really heated things up.
Our society has confused blogging or poor journalism for real reporting in recent years. A real jounalist waits until they can get real facts about something before writing about it and they don't report unsubstantiated rumors along with what they have found out to be true in the same breath. That will always confuse the issue.
We waited until Saturday night to post anything because we had not been able to talk to anyone officially. We wanted facts and stuck by what the police involved told us and didn't add what others who knew nothing about the situation said. One television station didn't have much of a story so they interviewed someone familiar with rape counseling to flesh out their piece. That's okay, but I have to ask why do that?
During the interview with Wellington Police Chief Lee Barry on Saturday evening he told me people were literally flagging him down while he was on duty Saturday and asking him about the situation. Many were seriously alarmed by all they had heard through the rumor mill.
I was gone from the office on Friday and in Salt Lake. It was disconcerting to hear all this on Saturday. I knew what I was hearing wasn't all true, just by what was being said. But the fact is that the truth is always the victim of rumor.
This is a serious crime and something we should all be concerned about. We have to feel for the victim and support her. Hopefully the perpetrator will be caught and punished.
But unfounded rumors don't help a situation, they make things worse.