Last week, a Texan schoolteacher caused the arrest and detainment of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade digital clock to class which, in the faculty’s view, appeared to be a bomb. The boy, wearing a NASA t-shirt, was put in handcuffs and taken to a juvenile detention facility where he was then interrogated. This caused a media firestorm with (almost) everyone siding with Ahmed using the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed (see Bill Maher’s contrary, albeit humorous take on Real Time with Bill Maher:
Included were powerful individuals like President Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg:
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.
— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015
The teacher(s) involved in Ahmed’s arrest just inadvertently built his future into a great one, all thanks to the power of social media. Opportunities for Ahmed are popping up everywhere, with invitations from Foursquare, MIT, and even a shout-out from NASA:
— Daniel Tani (@Astro_Tani) September 16, 2015
However, in certain cases an information cascade or “bandwagon effect” occurs. Information cascade is when one observes another’s actions while disregarding opposing sides of the story and uses it in order to gain personal popularity.
See the following link for a great article on information cascade and social media “influentials”: http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~milad/paper/fp1006-eftekhar.pdf
While what happened to Ahmed was undoubtedly unfair, we see this effect commonly within social media. For the teacher, Ahmed’s shy demeanor and questionable-looking device resulted in a perceived threat to all of the students’ security. Lack of communication and one teacher’s anxiety led to Ahmed’s arrest: a simple mistake with huge consequences. So what can we take from this? One lesson is that great things can come from horrible situations when we join together as a global community and take a humane stand via social media. But what we must do is always take into account ALL sides of the story: the principal’s, the teachers’, and Ahmed’s, for example. We must recognize the power of social media and exercise caution and objectivity when pointing society’s finger at an individual or group.