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.