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Call it a case of mistaken identity multiplied as only the worldwide Internet can do it--not just in duplicate, triplicate or quadruplicate, but on and on till the end of time. The loquacious types who spread the mistaken word are aided and abetted by the anonymous gossips, critics, nudniks and not-so-innocent bystanders out there in cyberspace who are all too eager to share their vast store of misinformation with the whole computerized world.

Here's a result: A man named Greg Holmes is inundated with messages tying him to the sad death of an innocent 3-year-old child trapped in a car as bullets flew in a classic case of road rage. Even as the real suspect--one Gary Eugene Holmes, a man with a similar name--is being held in custody. End of story. But not of Greg Holmes' travail. For the false can travel around the world, especially in these electronically goosed times, while the truth is still trying to get its shoes on.

Only those who know our local Greg Holmes and the truth about him would know he's not a killer but an ever-obliging 42-year-old car salesman, the kind of nice guy who bakes pies for his friends and customers, who are many and rose to his defense. But not before the strange calls were still coming to his house as late as March, when he picked up the phone to hear a man's voice say: "I'm out of prison now, you baby killer."

To quote Stephanie Schulte, a professor at the University of Arkansas who studies what happens when technology meets culture, often enough with a crash, "The norms in online spaces are different, in part because you're hidden behind a screen." And so can feel free to attack a good man anonymously, guaranteed that your own identity will not be revealed or your character smeared in turn.

To quote Kevin Sanders, a U.S. Marshal who helps track down wanted fugitives, "Somewhere along the way, it just got relayed to us that his name was Greg." And that kernel of misinformation grew and grew into a wilderness of bad guesses and malicious motivations that trapped a good man in a world he never made.

If there is a moral to this story, it may be the observation of one student of malware in this (mis)information age: "Always remember . . . . Rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools, and accepted by idiots." If that is not a flattering picture, keep in mind that it's a self-portrait. It's the inescapable one our juiced-up, electronically sophisticated but morally ignorant society has drawn of itself. With the aid of the latest in technology but no moral compass.

If there is hope for American journalism, which may have pretensions of being a profession instead of the simple trade it has been since at least Ben Franklin's time, it lies in the simple creed that any good carpenter follows: Measure twice, cut once. Somewhere down in his basement, a superannuated editor of our acquaintance still has a bench that bears a jagged cut across much of its length--a reminder of what happens when speed takes precedence over skill in his trade or any other.

It's been said that, given enough time, a roomful of monkeys will type out the works of William Shakespeare, but who's got time to wait out the ages till such a wondrous result comes to pass? Especially in a society that's already pressed for time, and therefore eager to get the story first instead of right. And especially on social media. There's still a sucker born every minute, and such gulls will always find themselves the prey of those who'll lead them far, far astray--especially if they don't have to name their sources. Greg Holmes is only their latest victim.

Editorial on 05/01/2017

Print Headline: What's in a name?

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