Editorial: Wildfire

THE expression “spreading like wildfire” refers to how quickly a bit of news or rumor can circulate. In the case of the Metro Ayala Department Store, investigators still have to finish gathering ash, debris, and eyewitnesses’ accounts. They have yet to say what caused the fire, which lasted for more than 60 hours, and what changes can be made in policy and local regulations to prevent disasters like it.

And yet, despite our officials and experts’ necessary caution, many of our fellow citizens had already reached their conclusions, based on nothing but guesswork, and spread these online.

In a crisis, the need for credible information is great. Since we are all connected, we all share the responsibility, whether we are professional communicators or not, to weigh each piece of information that lands on our virtual doorsteps. How do we know something is true? If it is true, how will circulating it help others?

Granted, many members of the Cebuano community feel keenly the loss of a commercial space that we’ve known for more than 20 years. Every day since the fire began, the requests for updates have been unrelenting. To their credit, both government and private sector stakeholders have been generous with their information. The Bureau of Fire Protection 7, Metro Retail Stores Group, and Cebu Holdings Inc. have consistently found the time to respond patiently to inquiries, to help feed the public’s need to know what was going on.

Yet there were those who, for reasons only they know, concluded it was arson even as the fire was still ongoing, that it was a case of insurance fraud when there was no way they could have gained any evidence. This carelessness is criminal. Worse, it feeds the public’s cynicism. It discourages the attention and action needed to make our public spaces, both actual and virtual, safer for everyone.

It is strange, indeed, that in what is supposed to be an age of information, the distinction between fact and opinion still escapes many. Some will share opinions to project an expertise they have not earned. And there are those who get a kick out of peddling and profiting from disinformation, without any regard for the harm they cause.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have attempted to weed out criminal content, such as messages that promote child pornography, terrorism, trafficking, and hate speech. But even they can’t seem to enforce of all the standards they’ve set for their communities. Norms of communication are developing much slower than the public’s ability to communicate. In some ways, the Metro Ayala fire brought us together, as seen in the support that reached bone-tired firefighters. But in other ways, it has reminded us of how easily we can tear each other apart.
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