American Culture

The UNSHARE button: Can we all just step away from the propaganda?

Our social media activities would benefit from a dose of critical thinking.

A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on. – Terry Pratchett

I had an exchange with my sister earlier about something she had shared on Facebook. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one alleging that 11 US states now have “More People on Welfare than they do Employed.” Hint number one: cluelessness regarding the mysteries of punctuation. And no, I won’t link to it.

This one smelled like utter BS by the time I reached the end of the first line, so I did some snooping. Snopes didn’t have anything on it, so I did a general Google search, waded through the first several hits, which were basically copy/pastes of the item on various forums, and finally found the detailed examination I was after at FactCheck.

I posted this link back to the Facebook exchange, and I think my sister felt betrayed. It hadn’t seemed right to her when she saw it, and her response at the FactCheck article was to wonder how people could get away with lying like that. That was perhaps naïve, but I think we can all sympathize. Even if we’re jaded bastards and expect to be lied to, we can probably remember our sense of bafflement many years ago when the ugly reality about our fellow citizens began to dawn on us.

My response was probably a tad bitchy, but I said they get away with it because people pass it on without checking it out first.

The Internet, way back in the ’90s, was hailed as “the information highway.” We now know that it’s also the disinformation autobahn to hell, and by the way, we also know that information isn’t the same as knowledge and neither is the same as wisdom. The sad fact is that if you put every evil son of a bitch in history on a task force, their collective creative genius couldn’t manufacture a more powerful device for the conception and dissemination of lies than the Net. And as computing power and bandwidth has increased, the online potential for deception has exploded. Words can lie, but putting images, memes, animated gifs and video into the hands of the ignorant and corrupt is like arming terrorists with nukes.

I suppose we all know by now that the world is full of dishonest people willing to mislead us for personal gain, and even fuller of stupid people trying their best to lead us to their ill-informed, counter-productive and sometimes disastrous points of view. That they truly believe in what they’re pushing doesn’t make the rest of us any less screwed if they win.

The short version is this: Propaganda isn’t new, but the tools that can be put in its service are, and they’re more powerful than anything in the history of human communication. One little dishonest, but creatively constructed meme goes viral, and next thing you know the world is a bit fuller of ignorance and an army of actual experts on the subject are damned near helpless when it comes to the task of unringing the bell.

I don’t know how many people saw the story my sister shared. I don’t know how many, possessed of certain misconceptions about how the country actually works, shared it on with their networks. My guess is that both of those figures are higher than the number of people who saw my link to the debunking, and the number of folks who forwarded that is smaller still. My money is on zero.

A lie runs around the world. The truth hasn’t even found its boots yet.

I’m not going to get partisan about this. There are all kinds of liars in the world, from politicians to religious leaders to advertisers to simple, garden variety assholes. Everybody has an agenda, but not everybody has ethics or morals. It is therefore helpful that we assume, with each passing moment, that somebody is either lying to us or preparing to.

Those without scruples will always have a certain kind of edge on the rest of us, and it’s impossible to imagine that we might ever rid ourselves of the hucksters and the idiots who plague our society.

Still, we don’t have to help them. When some manner of questionable proposition comes at us, step one is to think first. Who is pushing this idea? What is their agenda? What does it mean for me, my friends and family and community if this idea becomes widely accepted?

What happens if I pass it along?

I know it’s tempting. After all, Facebook has a SHARE button. They do not have an UNSHARE button, but maybe they should look into it. Maybe an option that we can all click when we see bullshit, and if enough people click it the item gets tagged for review by the staff. I don’t know – just an idea. If you have a better idea, we can talk about it.

My sister ain’t no dummy. In fact, she’s damned bright. But her life hasn’t led her through the valley of the shadow of propaganda like mine has – and as a result she’s a lot more pleasant a human being than I am and a damned sight happier – and like a lot of people in the US her community, her personal network, is not as infused by critical instincts as would be healthy for it. This isn’t a slam at any one person or town or region or social segment. It’s simply true that about 99.9% of the country could afford a bit more critical thinking.

So next time something spectacular and controversial and outrageous comes across your path, step back, take a deep breath and think for a second. Even if you decide to share it, there’s no law that says you have to do so right that second. Use the damned Web as a tool for good. Research a little. Snoop until you either find a solid, trustworthy source that validates the claim or until you find one that debunks it. The key here is credibility. “News” agencies with strong partisan agendas may not be credible, anymore than a copywriter on the Coors Light account can be trusted to provide you with reliable advice on great-tasting beers.

It’s okay to UNSHARE, folks. Think about it.

52 replies »

  1. I recall writing an epic debunking of the supposed dangers of the LHC in response to BS like this, and the recent Fukushima panic in the US needs to be treated similarly. I’m trying to be polite about telling people that Fukushima isn’t a threat to the US, but not always succeeding.

    There’s so much naivete and ignorance….

    • Most of the people don’t think even if a thing like this is possible to happen, rather they just dive into it blindly to have their say.
      Its always better to think and act. Anyways To Err is Human. Right?

  2. I am forever posting links to debunk what others have posted. I used to do it in emails, now on FB. Sometimes, I just don’t even bother. And if it’s just a stupid opinion or idea, then what facts are to be presented? I finally got my mom and one of my sisters to not share stuff so quickly. Now they message me and ask me to check it out. Why bother? It never is true.

  3. I’ve always thought that Zuckerschmuck’s genius lay in the creation of the “like” button without an accompanying “dislike” button. There’s so much on FB that I’d like to dislike, but I all I can do is “hide” it … or de-friend the miscreants. (Maybe that’s why I don’t have too many FB friends …)

    • Doc, Even in WP, We don’t have an unlike button. You could always voice your thoughts by commenting on the topic instead of just hiding your emotions.

    • should be an up or down yeah i agree with that sentiment. its commonplace except for facebook right? furthermore, clicking share and like is oh so easy but oh so tedious to undo – especially after a night of beer and headphones. speaking from experience of course.

  4. With or without the internet, with or without propaganda, people are going to believe what they want to believe. No one can control that. All you can do is either accept it and go about your business, or, as you’re suggesting, hide.

    But why hide if you have nothing to hide? Wouldn’t that make the lies seem true?

    Maybe it’s not that your sister hasn’t had to go through what you’ve been through. Maybe it’s that she’s just not as easily beaten down by what other people throw at her. And why should she be? A person can lie for a thousand years about someone else, but the truth is always going to be apparent to the people who matter in that person’s life.

    With that said, if someone doesn’t matter in your life, what the hell do you care what they believe about you anyway?

    Life is not a popularity contest. If it was we would all fail miserably. The internet has created this paranoid mindset that you either buy into, or you don’t. And the more you buy into it the more powerful it becomes.

    If someone else’s lies are beating you down it’s your own damned fault. Be who you are, stand your ground and eventually the truth will come out.

    And then everyone will get bored and go home because there’s no drama. LOL

    Hiding or refusing to share is the worst thing someone can do. The truth withstands. It’s a symbol of what is real. And no lie – no fabrication – is ever going to change that.

    • Well Said Cristy, but if something goes all wrong right in front of our eyes, how can we act blind? That’s the point of internet. You can share any kind of information on the web, amy it be true or utter BS.

  5. Another big problem on the Net is lazy, sloppy research.

    I write a humour blog and it is labelled as such in the tags and in the byline (Stuff that comes out of my head). Several months ago, I wrote a short pseudo-scientific article on how Ctesibius, an inventor in Ptolemaic Egypt invented the world’s first alarm clock. While the post has quite a lot of factually true information, it takes some of the information and puts it out of historical context and mixes some of the facts with imagination to produce a plausible sounding fiction. Now, please keep in mind that this article was written as a flight of fancy and was labelled as humour for anyone who cared to see it. Imagine my surprise when I started getting a lot of regular hits on this post. Since my blog is only modestly followed, I decided to start digging into this phenomenon – why was I getting so much traffic on this one post? After about fifteen minutes, I found that this post in my blog had been cited as a source in a high school world history research project which it seems, had been shared by a lot of other schools. It looks like from this one point of poor, lazy research, the posting that I intended to give the readers a laugh may have made it into several thousand student’s reports on the Greek inventor Ctesibius and his alarm clock. Google “Ctesibius Greek alarm clock” and see how high up “justjigglethehandle” comes up.

  6. My blog is the only social-ish media in which I participate, for the very reasons you’ve expressed so well here. We can’t afford to be herded around by anyone – especially the self-propagating business of media.

    If we spent a fraction of the time problem solving and taking action we do gesticulating, what a world we might create.

  7. State something often enough and no matter how dumb it sounds some people will take it as fact. If you get chance check my blog today and I had published the exact same concept by stating what my students had made up. I got back some comments that they thought some of the stuff was real. Example: there was a fourth boat for Christopher.

  8. Any creative idea can be made to sound as plausible as the actual truth and with a few minutes using Photoshop, there is the proof. People can be very gullible and liars will play this to say or post what others really want to hear, this makes the job a lot easier. One bonus I have going for me is that in another life, I was a very accomplished BSer, and it is hard to BS a BSer. Now I take what I hear with varying grains of salt depending on the source. I just recently saw some crap on FB by a friend of a friend of a friend. He was on my list, I really don’t know the person, but when I hit the unfriend button I was asked it the post was spam. That was the closest option there was to an out and out lie.
    I have pretty much given up on trying to convince people who actually believe this stuff, they are going to believe what they are comfortable with and I won’t end up pushing a rope, that never works! Thanks for the post 🙂

  9. People think it’s on social media, one of their friends recommended it, so it must be true. There was recently a “like this page and win $500” share floating around – it sounded too good to be true, and it was. Reminds me of those emails which used to go around “forward this to 100 of your best friends in the next 5 minutes or you will die” – I hated those too. Gullible is right!

  10. That was an eye-opening post; it’s hard to believe that the people around us are going crazy on the social networking. Everything in our life got its own pros and cons as like that this one had that too.

  11. This is a very important issue in the modern world. Unfortunately, the willingness of people to believe unproven and unverified ideas or ‘facts’ on little or no evidence is a phenomenon found both online and in the real world. Whether it’s because a story reinforces their current views, or it makes them feel better in general or it simply gives them something to gossip about.

    Would you agree that online, people perhaps do this because they are not face to face with their audience and are not forced to defend or assert their opinion? It is just a matter of passing it on and letting the post do the work? I saw no malice meant by your sister in her post, simply a failure to engage her critical faculties. Do you think that the internet simply makes people less critical and more trusting, or is it mainly people actively using the internet in negative and socially degrading ways, in order to incite worry and promote personal opinions as fact? With this story, high unemployment can often turn political attitudes and is a useful tool for those who wish to turn politics towards their preferences.

  12. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

    That’s the cliche in journalism — where I work — and I like it. Our BS meters are tuned pretty finely, but it’s easy to forget (or not even know) how gullible, poorly-educated and credulous others are, people who don’t need or want to critically examine and discard much of the information shoved at them. In the real world, you look to the source of the information — the person standing there telling you (who you already know to be a liar or someone reliable.)

    On-line why would we trust anyone to be truthful?

  13. Well said. High speed and broad access to information is both boon and bane. We have a complete set of 30 volumes of encyclopedia books on the shelf near our table. We never use it and will donate it to someone who will.

    Crap on facebook competes for good. It is like sand in the axle bearings. Our family thought a family group would be a good idea before a family reunion in the summer of 2012. By the fall, we were also using the group to post some commentary on the upcoming election. That led to one family member wishing for a button worse than Un-like. They wanted an Un-Friend choice. They even said they wanted an Un-Family button.

  14. Well said.

    I get upset when I hear people state as fact something so clearly not plausible. It is easier in person. Recently, a person told me that so and so did something really ugly to someone I know. I asked what exactly he did. A quick subject change. So, get the data. Check it out. There is so much crap in the wind.

  15. This was a great read. Herd mentality came to mind. Research scientists from Leeds University discovered that approximately 95% of people make decisions based upon the actions of others. That it takes a minority of just 5% to influence a crowd’s direction – and the other 95% follow without realizing it. What has apparently evolved to enhance cooperation among our species, as well as other species, has some negative side-effects which some take advantage of.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  16. Excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing this. I hate when people just share away without knowing the facts. Congratulations, too, on being Freshly Pressed. It’s a special honor.

    Bruce

  17. Yeah, propaganda in general drives me nuts. Only in the past year have I realized that both sides of the aisle are basically corrupt with a few good eggs on either side. I listened to the propaganda for a long time, so I’m glad I figured it out.

  18. “Have you met my new boyfriend? I met him on the internet. He’s a French Model!” =-O
    Yes, more people should fact check.
    Congrats on getting pressed!!

  19. Excellent post.I recently wrote an article that talked about how we’ve lost our ability to form an honest judgement about anything because we are being fed day and night-a scripted cocktail of lies designed to push down false BS into our minds as the truth.Your article is spot on about how social media is leading the rise of ignorance.

  20. Critical thinking is something that should be taught by parents, and in the schools. But, kids learn by example–non-thinking, non-caring parents will spawn offspring that are the same or worse.

    • I agree completely with this! People expect schools to perfectly mold children into the hard workers and informed consumers of tomorrowbut parents must learn to lead by example!

  21. If nothing else, the Navy bootcamp broke me of the habit and taking liberal arts in college reinforced you must always be sure of your sources. In the USN, you had to be able to tell who the order came from. You had to know your source.

    In my major, it was entirely honor students. You better know your sources and they better not be pulling it out of their hat. Those studies or research had better be a good solid method with good solid sources behind it.

    As to the human race? As my one Auctioneering Law Prof said “People IS stupid and I mean IS.” or as I said to my mother when she said “What will people think?” to me, “Mom if you think people think you are giving them way too much credit.”

    People as a mass have always been stupid. The problem is those they follow are now getting stupider and the followers don’t know how to tell the difference.

  22. I can’t count the number of times I have sent people links that show that the “astonishing” thing on Facebook they posted turned out to be hyperbolic fear mongering. So glad to see this post. People say “common sense” isn’t so common but I think that critical thinking is even more of a rarity these days!

  23. Well written post, and an good analysis of the issue. Some ideas, ‘memes’ are good at surviving in the digital world of facebook, with no relationship to the merit of the meme in the real world. In my correspondence, I see examples of practical, ordinary people forwarding, or posting, the silliest trash. It hurts my feelings sometimes. An old chum recently forwarded me something about Mr. Obama’s prayer rug, a forward devoid of any contribution by him. He just ‘shared’ it with a list of email addresses. Gross. My appreciation for this ability to think critically dropped to a new low at that point.

  24. I have had many a similar situation. The endless sharing of untruths, propaganda and just plain crap is why I don’t do Facebook, or many others social sites.

  25. I generally don’t forward anything that comes to me through social media, but if I were, I’d want to verify it first so I wouldn’t look like an idiot if it turned out to be some bit of propaganda or outright hogwash.

    I sometimes wonder if people “sharing” these canards give much throught to the fact that they are, in essence, putting their reputations on the line when they forward dubious information.

  26. I have found that many people take whats posted on Facebook as the truth at face value without any research at all. It is very frustrating and we are turning into an uniformed monster. Facebook has made people lazy.

  27. Great points. The internet is just a medium for information – it helps information spread fast, both true and false. However, it does have an amazing self-correcting power, as people immediately start debunking untrue claims – like you did with your sister.
    As a pastor, I have seen other pastors and church leaders share erroneous information that got shared with them online, without taking the time to make sure it’s true. I wrote more about that here: http://longmontpastor.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/please-turn-with-me-in-your-phones-smart-phones-and-tablets-in-church/

  28. There is no replacement for critical thinking.Our world abundant with “information”, becomes increasingly more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, or better still truth and lie. I find myself often checking two different “reports” on two different channels to somehow get to the truth. It’s a very good notion that we check the information of the information so to speak, and possibly actively play a part in debunking those instances where we find DIS-information. Well played sir.

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