The Ripple Effect: How Stories Can Have Unintended Consequences
I’ve written a lot of stuff in my life, and there are well over 1,000 articles online published with my name attributed to it ranging from all sorts of topics: technology, science, politics, travel, arts and creativity, life, school, work, and more. I’ve written editorials about why close-minded bickering about technology is stupid, to an explanation of why a company went with proprietary functions over open-source, to a thorough examination of AT&T utilizing Bait-and-Switch tactics against customers. I’ve talked about political problems in America ranging from incarceration, student debt, and why the United States Department of Defense is the absolute greatest threat against America. Yet despite all these things, and much more, I’ve never had such a Ripple Effect as I have with my story on Vietnamese Traffic cops.
When I write a story, I usually have a target audience. If you don’t have a target, then you’re just shooting in the wind. In the case of technology, I write to people around the world, young and old, who share my affection for the advancing consumer electronics market. In the case of travel stories though, I write for my family and friends to see what I see. To hear a story that has some meaning, or to allow them to live through what I lived through – at least, as much as possible. This story, regarding Viet Nam traffic police, was written for very similar reasons. For my family and friends in America to experience what I did. What ended up happening though was unlike anything I ever expected. It just exploded.
When I published the story back in January of this year, 70 people came by and read it, and a few of them shared it with others. It’s about the impact I usually expected from travel stories, having roughly 300 people read it within the first month. Views on the article all but ceased completely for a little while, until July of this year. Until about a week ago. What happened then? Somebody in Viet Nam, who has a following, saw my article, shared it, and caused a social media chain reaction I never expected.
Within a few hours, over 30,000 people in Asia had read my story, mostly from Viet Nam. The audience was diverse, from Hanoi, to Ho Chi Minh City, to people in Da Nang and all areas in between. There were thousands of readers from China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the England, Ireland, France, Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Australia and much more – all visiting my blog to read what I had to share. For the first time in this blog’s existence, the United States was 10th place in terms of traffic sources. It was every bloggers dream come true. Within 48 hours, over 80,000 people had seen it, and shortly after that, the article broke the 100,000 reader mark – a milestone no single article written by me had ever reached (previous record was only 43,000). I still have hundreds of comments on YouTube and my blog under the story, people from all over the world are still hitting the share buttons, and I’ve even been formally contacted by a reporter from Thang Nien Newspaper in Viet Nam, one of the most circulated publications in the country. You’d think this would be awesome, and I’d be super happy about this…. but I’m actually sorta not. I’m actually far more worried than anything else.
You see, the nature of this article, and the video included with it, has to do with corrupt police officers demanding bribes from citizens during traffic stops. There’s a culture in Viet Nam that accepts bribery at all levels, and it creates a culture with police officers that have an invested interest in stopping people. This means, that the article I wrote that’s getting all this attention (which I still haven’t taken down, although I did consider it numerous times), is a negative opinion piece against Vietnamese officials. It blatantly exposes, and in many cases outright insults government officials in a country that is still fairly communist in nature, despite their motivation to become a “Socialist Republic.” Normally, there would be no issue with a foreigner writing a story like this – because I’m not a citizen of Viet Nam, nor do I have any really intention of living there one day. However, as many of my regular readers here know, I have family there. – and therein lies the real issue: Is my writing endangering my family.
I’ve basically refused to allow the reporter to translate my story for their paper, and I’m considering not answering their questions as well… but there’s really nothing stopping them from quoting it, embedding the video, and making their own story out of it. They could spin it any way they wanted and there’s nothing I can do about it. This is the nature of the public internet, and it cannot be reversed. Even if I took down that video right now, or made a version with blurred faces, there would still be numerous copies of the video in circulation around the web, easily discoverable. It’s already been downloaded from YouTube numerous times, and blatantly pirated for upload on Facebook (people use the work of others to gain followers for themselves, still a part of Asian culture thus far). In summary, there’s really now way to undo what’s been done. The article has been copied and pasted word-for-word on public forums in Viet Nam, and my blog is linked back to the story all over the world. There’s no way to take it back. Even if I removed the entire story from my blog right now, Google would still be able to serve a cached version of the story for the next could of weeks.
It’s a perfect example of unintended consequences.
Now, there’s no personally identifying information in the video itself, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean it would be difficult to figure out who people are. If the right government officials wanted to, they could make it very difficult for my family in Viet Nam, removing their abilities to get passports, or harassing them on the road, or even preventing my wife and I from visiting them in the future. It’s very similar to what the American government can do to me as a citizen here, except they’ll do it on the micro scale. I have the right to talk about my own government however I want in the public internet – that’s my first amendment right of free speech and free press. Vietnamese people don’t have this right like I do, and if it was published in a national newspaper, it would undoubtedly get more attention than I would have ever dreamed of. I’d get hundreds of thousands of new visitors here to the blog, probably gain thousands of subscribers and followers all over the world. For a blogger, it’s a wonderful thing. For somebody who cares about their family though, it’s a potential nightmare.
I take family safety and happiness over this little bit of fame any day. So reporters… if you want to publish something from my blog, publish something happier. Publish something like my commentary of your weddings, or my opinion of what tourists should expect when they come to Vietnam. I don’t really know what you should write about, but I will ask this: If there is any chance it could make life for my family more difficult, please stay away from publishing it. Thank you.