Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Lack of the right information is the real problem online

In the information age where social media and traditional media compete to be first past the post with information, everyone, from newsmakers to media to consumers, has to acknowledge there is a tradeoff between accuracy and speed. 

One of the great ironies of the information age is learning to deal with information scarcity amid the white noise of information overload.

As the saga of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 unfolded in the past 36 hours, that was one of the things that stood out as both mainstream and online media offered blanket coverage about the incident.

The beleaguered MAS has come under fire for its slow response to its plane going missing over the South China Sea. There has been enough information, or rather lack thereof, in the long hours following the first news break to make it evident that the airline had little idea of what happened to MH370 in the immediate hours after contact had been lost.

Accustomed as we all are now to blanket media coverage of any breaking news event, the one thing we have not learnt to cope with is the lack of information.

As consumers of news, we are all greedy for any scrap of a big story that comes our way. And with the proliferation of social media and online news portals, this hunger for information means that the chances of rumours spreading multiply exponentially.

One of the first rumours that spread like wildfire on social media at about 10am on Saturday morning was that the plane had "safely landed". A person had posted this on social media saying he "got news from a friend".

Soon after, talk was that the plane had landed in Vietnam.

This was soon overtaken by rumours of an emergency landing in Nanning, in southern China.

No doubt, social media can break news faster than traditional media, given that everyone armed with a smartphone can tweet or post updates on Facebook. This ability has proven useful in times of catastrophe when people have turned to social media as alternate means of obtaining information from the ground rather than from authorities who may have no idea what is going on.

I was in Boston last year at the time of the marathon bombing incident. Like many others, I turned to social media for the latest information, trawling the platform for hashtags.

The draw was the immediacy of the updates. But those soundbites can sometimes be unverified. In the chaotic hours immediately after the Boston bombs, there were tweets about unexploded devices being found in other busy city areas. Luckily, there was no mass panic, but those tweets, plausible as they sounded, could have triggered negative reactions that could have caused more harm.

The difficulty lies in assessing the validity of the information that travels at light speed in the ether. This is where traditional media still has a thin winning edge over new media.

On Saturday when the rumours about MH370 took on a life of their own, The Straits Times had the advantage of bureaus in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, where reporters were immediately scrambling to verify the online rumours with sources on the ground.

With reporters attending the MAS press conference in Kuala Lumpur and pumping industry contacts in Singapore and Indochina for information, editors made the call to wait for verification rather than run with the rumours. That, as it turned out, was a wise decision.

But it also means that there is a perceived "time lag" in traditional media reporting, as reporters strive to obtain the most accurate information available.

Even then, information in traditional media is only as good as the source and the quality of the reporting.

On Saturday afternoon, Vietnamese state media quoted Admiral Ngo Van Phat as saying the plane had crashed off the coast of Tho Chu island. But the admiral later clarified to Reuters that what he had said was that the plane might have crashed in Malaysian waters, 153 miles off the coast of Tho Chu, according to its speed and last known trajectory.

No doubt the Tuoi Tre news website had thought it had the latest update from a reliable source and reported it accordingly. The fact that it turned out to be inaccurate is also a cautionary tale for traditional media wrestling with the issue of reporting the news accurately, yet with enough immediacy to satisfy the ravenous appetite of the new online world.

Accuracy should be the governing principle. But that also means that readers have to be satisfied on occasion with slower scraps of information if they really do want the correct picture. It is an inevitable tradeoff which everyone involved in the news cycle, from newsmakers to media to consumers, has to acknowledge.

It is not just traditional news organisations that have to tread that delicate balance between offering speed and accuracy, and feeding the news mill.

Corporations now also have to deal with getting ahead of the information curve. MAS has learnt, to its cost, that no information will cause an online backlash that might hurt it worse than if it had come clean much earlier about how little it knew about what had happened to MH370.

Like nature, the online world abhors an information vacuum. And if no information is forthcoming from the source, in this case MAS, then the online world, and news media, will fill it with speculation and theory.

Already there have been conspiracy theories surfacing online about terrorism, bolstered by the discovery that two passengers boarded the plane with identity credentials from stolen passports.

No doubt more theories will emerge in the days to follow as the authorities continue their grim search for the plane.

Even if they do find wreckage, there will be the inevitable investigation into what caused a plane to fall out of the sky in clear conditions. And that means a longer wait for the truth about what happened to MH370.