This story begins July 12, 2010, with a single Twitter update from an obscure Florida pastor.
The pastor is Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, a small church in Gainesville. Jones and his congregation of about 30 people have long been outspoken about their negative feelings about Islam, going as far as erecting a sign on church property declaring "Islam is of the Devil" earlier this summer.
The sign created some negative local backlash, angering Jones and prompting him to take to Twitter and post a message calling for September 11, 2010, to become "International Burn a Koran Day."
A Facebook group in support of the idea soon followed, and Jones began posting videos of himself explaining his rationale on YouTube. With few followers, no budget and little more than an Internet connection, Jones' message began spreading around the United States.
Traditional media largely ignored the story, but not the Internet. Within days, the website Euro-Islam.info re-posted Jones' invectives against Islam. This was soon picked up by the Council on American-Islamic Relations which condemned the idea in a press release sent to traditional media. A few days later, Jones conducted an interview with the CNN cable television network.
Very quickly, opponents of Jones' plan began organizing - again, often using tools such as Facebook. At first dozens, then hundreds of anti-Quran-burning groups sprang up. Protests were threatened around the world. The mainstream news media could no longer ignore the story, but how much coverage should they give an unknown man with an extremist message?
“This is one of the cases where we see what I think is an overplay of the story by the media," said Kevin Smith of the Society of Professional Journalists in an earlier VOA interview. "But no one wants to be the media outlet that doesn't have the story. Now, you have the Internet. And you have bloggers and …citizen journalists and amateurs, who are out there just providing information. And it just exacerbates the situation. Now you’re not competing against the morning newspaper, the afternoon TV. You’re competing against a multitude of individuals who are disseminating information about this."
In the week leading up to September 11, 2010, Jones was a constant topic on television. Video clips of Jones circulated throughout the Muslim world, with friends emailing links and viewing on smartphones. Gen. David Petreaus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan condemned the idea, as did Pope Benedict XVI, President Obama, and thousands of spiritual leaders around the world.
Jones and his church that no one ever heard of was now the top story around the world. Not bad for what started as a single tweet.
"It obviously started with a very small social media event, but mainstream media picked up on the story eventually, and that's what took it to a global scale," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
A former journalist, Rainie is familiar with how stories spread. But he says this example demonstrates the new era we live in, one in which the interplay of social and traditional media can rapidly shape or distort a news story.
"Many of these things exist in a very small universe with a small audience of people who read a blog, or look at a Facebook page, or follow a particular Twitter member," says Rainie. Traditional media are important, he says, but even that is changing. Enhanced search and filter functions allow people to find and distribute information more rapidly, meaning that inflammatory stories like the proposed Quran burning can be "baked," in his words, solely online.
That can be a problem, considering the torrent of information that exists online. Rumors can swirl and explode in hours rather than days, and the results can be disastrous.
"A couple of months ago we had an instantaneous stock crash because of the way that this communication system has become a hair-trigger system. So there are real impacts that are being felt in real consequential ways, both in people's safety and their lives as well as their financial lives. This is a very different world, and we haven't really worked out all of the rules about what should be regulated, how markets should respond, and what our social expectations should be. Should we pay attention to things that move really quickly - our technology systems, our email systems, our alert systems? How do we account for all of these things in our life without overreacting to them? And I don't think we've really worked out as a society what the right rules of the road ought to be."
The solution? "Basically we've got to get better filters to make sure that the most important stuff, the most relevant stuff, the most interesting stuff, gets into our lives," says Rainie. "But technology hasn't yet done that and our social networks are only sort of haltingly moving toward that. So we're going through this period of ferment about this, that will eventually sort itself out, but right now we're in the middle of the storm."
In the meantime, users of social media may want to take a page from the journalist's playbook: be skeptical of what you see and hear, check out the validity of the information, no matter how trusted your source, and be open to new perspectives.
Old guides that may just help in navigating this new world of information.