When Predictions Go Very Wrong

Recently we brought you a story on a recent prediction made regarding president Barack Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia and the fears many were showing over the visit.  But in addition to the curiosity and the possible apprehension many have that follows any political endeavor by any administration, the event brought with it a very specific and very disturbing prediction made by several users on the internet creating a sort of “flash counterculture” movement along with it.  But what effect does this constant stream of prediction have on the way we communicate?  And what can we learn from it?

Following Obama’s trip to India, a video on youtube warned that the move was a cover as revealed by an episode of the Simpsons.  Many who saw the video thought it was bizarre, but moved on thinking it was nothing but simple madness.  We brought you the story in the spirit of the weirdness surrounding it accompanied by the more realistic concerns raised over the matter of Obama’s visit.  But where are we in our society that a video making reference to nothing more than an unrelated episode of The Simpsons is given such a high degree of attention as a genuine prognosticator?  It’s easy to dismiss, but let’s take a closer look at the mechanism invoked in order to turn this from apocalyptic prediction gone wrong and turn it into a study on human behavior.

The internet has with it a level of anonymity in regards to public users in internet forums.  Often it is not important for the sake of simple communication.  But an interesting analogy would be the interaction that goes on in our everyday lives.  Let’s examine two different situations and what your reaction would be.  If someone on television were to come on the news and say, “I have deep personal knowledge that a nuclear attack will happen on X day,” this would have the makings of a public panic.  However, if you were on the subway and someone were to hop on and make the same announcement by yelling it down the passenger car we may be less inclined to believe it.  Why?  The entirety of the credibility of the prediction, without evidence, is based solely on the predictors themselves.  So if we were to remove the credibility of the predictor entirely, place a masque of anonymity over them, and listen to what they have to say, all the anonymous components of the internet may start to fuse together.  Of course there would be various factors, including the location of the prediction, the manner in which it is spoken, and the general demeanor of the initial response.  But even this initial response can be engineered in the case of internet forums and message boards by multiple user accounts controlled by the same person.

So what are we to take from this?  By no means does this remove the credibility of rumors on the internet in total, but it does strip away one of the illusions so often taken advantage of by those posting predictions in an attempt to get people to perform a specific activity – whatever that may be.