Murch: What do you call a reverse Butterfly Effect?
As is always the case, while I was looking through back issues of the paper and found something entirely different and completely unrelated to what I had set out to find. However this unrelated find sparked a memory, one that made me think of the proverbial rhyme “For Want of a Nail” – sort of.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Essentially, what this rhyme does is look at the effect one thing can have on so many things, a butterfly effect if you will (side note, The Butterfly Effect is a bad movie). What got me thinking of this was stumbling upon the story of drug arrests in Alpena several years ago, and the unnecessary events that had to take place because of what really wasn’t a story at all.
To go back for just a little while in case you don’t remember, there was a rumor that started around town of a drug arrest of a prominent businessman. That rumor grew to include several prominent and semi-prominent people in Alpena. Then it became a “coverup” by local media because we were protecting people.
After that the story grew and changed – it wasn’t local law enforcement that made the arrest, but rather the FBI. The story was in the Detroit Free Press, no wait, the Detroit News. Then the Bay City Times apparently ran it. Several people either “read” the story or knew someone who had. Problem is there never was a story.
We couldn’t answer the phone in the evening without it being someone making accusations. One of the editors at the Bay City Times even wrote a column because they were getting so many people asking for a copy of a story they never even had.
I wrote a column that addressed rumors and in the column the legend grew. A woman left me a voicemail message the next day saying that on top of the drug busts we needed to run a better story about the kids arrested in the park from my column – imaginary kids who didn’t get arrested.
It all became a black eye on the town and then-Prosecutor Dennis Grenkowicz had to have a press conference to announce everyone who had been arrested on drug charges – most very small charges – and none of them were the people rumored. It took a while for the city to recover from that I believe.
So that got me thinking about two things: first what wouldn’t have happened if the rumor never started, and secondly where did things suddenly grow with all of the lies?
Step back for just a moment and think about if this rumor never happened. For starters the reputations of several people in town wouldn’t have been damaged. The people had to quell the rumor or deal with all the rumormongering would have better spent their time and been more productive. Fewer people would have wasted idle time with gossip. And finally, a bunch of people who read the Bay City Times probably wouldn’t think there are a bunch of nut jobs living in Alpena.
But the really troubling thing is at what point does someone decide they are going to flat-out lie and let the rumor stretch into something that boils down to hate speech, trying to ruin the lives of innocent people? What evil does someone have in their heart to want to get their jollies off by telling lies they know aren’t true, but some unsuspecting friend doesn’t?
The rumors and lies are growing larger worldwide every day because people can hide behind the mask of anonymity thanks to the Internet. In all the calls we took in the newsroom during that whole fiasco, not a single caller ever identified themselves nor offered any evidence (not that there was any).
Take away that first person who started the rumor and there is no butterfly effect, there is no damage – and there is no want of a nail.