The storm stirred by the 13th zodiac sign, Ophicus is the latest sensation to take over the web world. Over the past few weeks, the internet has been roused by a variety of news and hoaxes. While net and social media, especially, provide grounds for news to travel fast and updated in an unprecedented way in media history, there is a flip side to it - the hoaxes and sensational issues are gaining momentum in such a pace that it raises questions on the people's susceptibility.
Will people believe anything? - this is question several raised in the wake of last week's hoax of Facebook shutting down.
The reports of social networking site closing in March left thousands with worry lines on their foreheads, until the mainstream media stepped in to clarify that the reports carried by various blogs was nothing but a rumor.
Weekly World News, which has the credit of starting rumors such as Michelle Obama getting pregnant and of impending attacks of alien spaceships, had quoted the CEO of the social media network as saying, Facebook has gotten out of control and the stress of managing this company has ruined my life. I need to put an end to all the madness.
It was only hours before the several blogs picked up the piece and rewrote it, causing the news to spread like wildfire. The unsuspecting readers consumed the unconfirmed reports, leading to a wide-spread panic. Twitter was flooded with posts from wailing Facebook-lovers, while Google search engine and Yahoo Answers was set on fire with the question 'is Facebook shutting down'. The scare was put to an end after several media outlets rationalized against the hoax, and some got confirmation from the company that the site is not shutting down.
This was followed by a death hoax of Don Shula, the American football cornerback and coach. Online reports said that Don Shula had died on January 12 of congestive heart failure. Due to these rumours, Don Shula was also trending on Google until January 13. Shula was the not the first victim of the fake death news, as phony fatalities of stars such as Owen Wilson, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Stephenie Meyer, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Bill Cosby and Charlie Sheen also hit the internet in the past.
While the above mentioned instances were that of flat-out hoaxes, the news on Ophiuchus also elicited similar responses. Netizens flooded Twitter with information on and responses to the 13th Zodiac sign. Search terms related to the news reigned the Google Trends. While initially the media reported on the existence of the 13th astrological sign that could change everything that people believed in, gradually the questioning spirit seeped in.
Interestingly, the new Zodiac sign information cycle took birth in a week-old Minneapolis Star-Tribune report, in which the astronomer, Parke Kunkle, is not found indicating that the new zodiac sign should be added to the 12 existing one. He had only explained how the Babylonians formulated the zodiac signs and read horoscope based on the constellation the sun was 'in' on the day a person was born.
But this was picked up by several media outlets and interpreted to read that astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society had found that because of the moon's gravitational pull on Earth, the alignment of the stars was pushed by about a month and listed new Zodiac, Ophiuchus between Scorpio and Sagittarius in late autumn.
This sparked off another cycle of interpretations and speculations - such as people saying that the new zodiac is only applicable to people born 2009 onwards - all out in the open on forums such as Twitter.
M. Alex Johnson, a MSNBC tech writer, dubbed the bunkum a textbook product of the Twitter Snowball Effect.
All that happened this week was that some online news editors learned about him (Kunkle), incorrectly thought he was new and turned him into a viral phenomenon. As often happens on Twitter, the first, inaccurate take - hey, there's a new Zodiac! - took off, snowballing into an avalanche that buried all attempts to correct it. This is the Twitter Snowball Effect, the Johnson explained, before observing that a phenomenon such as this takes away the attention from more important stories and developments.
While the Twitter Snowball Effect throws light on the media perspective of the recent events, there also exists another underlying concern of people's growing susceptibility and the troubles of information overload.
Even though the term information overload preceded the Internet, the concept has come to the forefront after the new media made the effects of information overload prominent. It refers to the difficulty a person faces in understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much information. In simple terms, the person is unable to filter the necessary information from the unnecessary data. This takes a toll on the person's cognitive performance such as decision making skills.
For instance, the news on the 13th Zodiac sign would not have caused so much commotion a few years ago - at a time when the information was filtered at the editorial-level for better clarity as well as at the person-level.
The internet has, no doubt, revolutionised the way news is delivered to the audience. However, the negative repercussions that the media is having on the audience as well as the media can not be brushed aside.