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digital wildfire

noun [countable]

false or sensitive information that spreads very rapidly over the Internet

'World Economic Forum Flags 'Digital Wildfires' As Risk to Global Stability … Global political and economic experts believe that false information spread on social networks could cause political and economic unrest …'

Social Times 8th January 2013

75 years ago, many thousands of Americans temporarily believed that their country had been invaded by extraterrestrials. It might seem laughable, but is entirely true – a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was mistakenly taken for an actual news broadcast, resulting in police phone lines being jammed by terrified listeners who presumably thought they were about to be grabbed by tentacle-wielding Martians!

paradoxically, one of the most effective ways to deal with a digital wildfire turns out to be use of the same social media avenues to set the record straight

Such a fiasco seems inconceivable in the connected world we live in today, where we could simply pick up a smartphone and get an instant impression of what's happening locally and globally. However it's this very connectivity, and the ease and speed at which information can be circulated in the digital universe, which has in fact caused not dissimilar examples of problems with misinformation. Such a scenario is now sometimes characterized by the expression digital wildfire.

A digital wildfire is essentially a false rumour that spreads very rapidly in the online universe, typically through social media. It's a piece of misleading information that can rip through the public consciousness at breakneck speed, and the ramifications can be serious, even potentially dangerous.

In 2012 there were several notable examples of digital wildfires. In the summer, a Twitter user impersonating a Russian interior minister tweeted that the Syrian President had been "killed or injured", causing crude oil prices to rise before traders realized that the president was alive and well. Far more gravely, an anti-Islamic film uploaded to YouTube later in the year led to violent protests causing a number of deaths. And in November in the UK, allegations of a former senior politician being involved in child abuse were widely circulated on Twitter before being proved totally unfounded.

Concern about such situations has fanned the flames of a wider debate about regulation of the Internet, though it seems unlikely that an acceptable legal restriction on online speech will ever be arrived at. If digital wildfires are to be avoided or contained, it seems that the responsibility lies mainly with users and consumers of social media. Paradoxically, one of the most effective ways to deal with a digital wildfire turns out to be use of the same social media avenues to set the record straight. It remains to be seen then whether the metaphor will be extended to describe this self-correction as something like 'digital rainfall'.

Background – digital wildfire

The concept underpinned by the expression digital wildfire is also sometimes described as simply digital misinformation. The metaphor of fire seems much more appealing however, aptly comparing the damage caused by the spread of misleading facts to the trail of destruction left in the wake of a wildfire. There's also evidence for the metaphor being carried over into collocates, such as for instance talking about the need to dampen or put/stamp out a digital wildfire.

The expression digital wildfire was presumably inspired by the established metaphoric phrase spread like wildfire, which refers to the rapid transmission of something negative, often applied to abstract ideas like rumours but also to concrete concepts like diseases. The figurative use of wildfire has been around for a very long time, first attested back in the 13th century.

Digital wildfires can also be linked to the concept of oversharing, the practice of unwittingly causing problems for yourself and/or others by circulating an inappropriate amount of personal information.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 6th August 2013.

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dish

to gossip or share personal information with someone …

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