In the past week and a half, I’ve encountered three instances of sensationalized, unverified information in my Facebook feed.
First, there was the time when The Guardian wrote about the end of civilization, which ended up being debunked by Discover Magazine. The original story was flying around my social media, but when I forwarded the debunking, I didn’t see that go very viral at all. I guess correct information, or at least an alternate, healthily skeptical view, is less fun to pass around to your friends?
Then, someone I know forwarded what she thought was an Einstein quote, but ended up being a portion of an Einstein quote lumped together with a portion of a blog post about shamanism, which drew my suspicion precisely because the entire thing as attributed to Einstein sounded so very un-Einstein from what I’ve come to know of him and what he’s said/written about religion and science. So I did some quick Google searching, discovered the error, and sent it her way. Just because you see a quote in a cute meme doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
Finally, today, there was this USA Today story flying around about a flyer that was handed out in the city of Donetsk in Ukraine ordering Jews to register with the city on penalty of having their citizenship revoked. This article makes it a point to say that the origin of the flyer is unknown, and spoke to several people in-the-know about their suspicions, etc, but the way this was passed around in my social media feeds, you’d think that Holocaust 2.0 were happening right now. Probably because the headline originally read “Jews Ordered to Register in East Ukraine” While it still reads that way on the main news page (which is where the clicks from USA Today’s regular readers will likely come from), the title when you click on the article is “Leaflet tells Jews to register in East Ukraine.” See the difference? The first headline makes it seem as though Ukraine were sanctioning this. The second makes it seem like an article about a mysterious anti-Semitic leaflet that requires further investigation. But which story is more “exciting?”
Since that article came out, there’s since been several that have urged people to calm down, as most of the facts point to it not being government-sanctioned. Like this one from New Republic Magazine. Sadly, I don’t see the New Republic article with the headline “Ukraine Is Not Ordering Its Jews to Register” being shared as quickly, or as often, in my feed.
I could write about the fact that journalists at reputable news organizations seem to not bother with silly things like fact-checking and journalistic ethics anymore, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
I wanted to talk about the fact that you and I are complicit in those lapses in journalistic judgment.
1) More People “Get Their News” From Social Media Than Ever Before (and They’re “Getting It” Wrong)
In a 2012 study done by the Pew Research Center For the People and the Press, 19% of all Americans (and 34% of Americans under 30) get their news from social media sites, which means articles and videos made viral on sites like Facebook and Twitter. By the looks of my social media feeds, I’m sure those numbers have gone up in the past two years. People love reading news on their social media, and they love passing it around.
The problem is, when people “get news” on social media, they’re very often just reading sensational headlines and forwarding things without reading the articles in full. When they do read the articles in full, they aren’t paying attention to whether or not the journalist has actually quoted anyone relevant, or cited sources, or, you know, done journalism right. There’s no critical thinking happening. It’s just: OUTRAGE, then share, then on to the next thing.
This is harmful. Especially on Facebook. As you all might know, the recently-changed FB algorithm promotes statuses into your feed based on how many likes, shares, and comments they get. In other words, we’re only seeing the popular stuff. So, if you’re quick on the draw and posting sensationalistic click-bait without verifying it, that’s the thing that’s gonna go viral, and it will drown out the real, non-hysterical news that does silly things like verify boring ol’ facts.
In our eagerness to share information, we’re perpetuating incorrect information, passing it off as truth.
2) Outlets Don’t Bother, Because They Know They Don’t Have To
Once cable news entered the scene, it was the beginning of the end. (Is that sensational enough for you?) But seriously, with cable news came the “24-hour News Cycle” which meant that a) news networks had to find 24-hours worth of stuff to talk about, and b) they were competing with each other for viewers.
The Internet compounded that. Now, not only is there a 24-Hour News Cycle, but anyone with a blog or a social media feed can take part! Everyone can talk about current events to their heart’s content, and non-professional journalists, since they don’t have editors, have the choice of whether or not they want to verify what they’re spreading around the internet.
What do TV News and blogs and social media sites have in common? They live or die by eyeballs. Ratings, clicks, shares, likes. It’s all about how many people you get to look at the thing you’re writing. Eyeballs are how professional news outlets make money, and how non-professional information aggregators get validation. This is so dangerous when it comes to news and history, because this is the area in which eyeballs become more important than fact.
The thing is, TV News programs, as well as bloggers and information aggregators study what works. They specialize in getting eyeballs, because that’s their livelihood. What they’ve learned is that people respond to sensationalized news, and often, in an attempt to sensationalize otherwise boring news and facts, they’ll tweak a headline to purposely make it misleading (click!), or they’ll fluff up a news story with pointed opinion that sounds very much like fact, but nonetheless isn’t (click! click!).
This isn’t new. William Randolph Hearst, for one, specialized in sensationalizing news in order to gain readership, hold on to his monopoly over the press, and further his political agendas in the 1930s. But today, we’re the ones doing the heavy lifting. Every time we click, like, and share, we confirm for the media that we enjoy half-truths and sensationalism. And so they continue to do it. Feeding our desire for a quick hit of shock or outrage in our otherwise boring work days, and guaranteeing that they will live to lie (or fluff up the truth) another day.
3) Dates Are Important
For the love of God, people. Why are you continuing to post April Fool’s Day stories two weeks after the fact?! For example, this April Fool’s article at Jezebel about Netflix bringing back Firefly showed up in my Facebook feed two or three days ago, and a friend of mine was so happy about the news! This is the problem with media outlets doing April Fools Joke stories. They’re funny day-of, but they’re not taken down, which means that anyone reading the site after April 1st will find it, not check the date, and giddily spread the news of Firefly’s return thinking that it’s real! Also, old news stories have a tendency to resurface in my social media feeds as NEW news stories way too often. The Internet is forever – and no one seems to look at dates.
I, for one, am ashamed of myself for the times that I’ve been guilty of doing this, and I’m sick of being taken in whenever others share unverified “news” and facts with me. So, I’ve been thinking about how I want to handle this from now on. Because I can complain about how how vile mainstream media is all day. I can complain about the incompetence of bloggers who call themselves journalists until I’m blue in the face. The fact is, they’re vile, because I’m complacent. They’re incompetent, because I don’t hold them to any kind of a standard. They get away with it, because I’m too lazy to do a Google search to verify facts before I share their wares, ensuring them a long, unethical life.
So from now on, these are my personal guidelines (which you’re free to follow as well):
1) If my first impulse is to go “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS!” and share with my social media feed – I’m going to STOP.
My excited/annoyed/outraged reaction is likely the product of careful manipulation by the outlet, blogger, or their marketing representative. Not necessarily the result of the actual facts of the story. I will not share or forward what sparked my reaction until I do more research. If I’m too lazy to look up the info, I just won’t forward the story. Done and done.
2) I will not share or like an “inspirational quote” unless I know that the quote is attributed correctly.
If I”m gonna be “inspired” by someone, I’d at least like to know that I’m being inspired by the right person.
3) If something is too good, too shocking, or too anything to be real, it probably is.
Media makes it seem as though EVERYTHING IS EXTREME AND HUGELY DIVISIVE! But the truth is, the world is more moderate than that most of the time, and when something shocking DOES actually happen, I’d hate for it to be drowned out by a lot of crying wolf.
4) I will check the date of the story, and I will never share or like anything posted on April 1st.
Because COME THE FUCK ON, PEOPLE! FIREFLY ISN’T COMING BACK. EVER. I KNOW THAT SUCKS, BUT DAMN. Also, yes – just because a story is coming up in my feed today, doesn’t mean it happened today. I’m not going to pass something around as news that’s, well, old news.
Lastly, as someone who keeps a blog and writes for professional outlets, I want to make a promise to all of you. I’ve never considered myself an actual journalist. I never really wanted to write journalism, honestly, but it pays more than fiction (which pays nothing when you’re starting out), so I found myself a pop-cultury niche so that I could actually earn some kind of a living as a writer. There are plenty of real journalists out there who are reporting important news far better than I ever could. I’m a great source for thoughtful, creative non-fiction. That’s what I do. Opinion and analysis, talking about the news long after the real reporting has been done. However, there are indeed times when I do need to let you know about facts to back up my opinions on certain things, and when I do, I will always cite my sources, and verify my facts thoroughly before I give them to you. And if, for some reason my facts are wrong, I will always happily eat crow in front of you, and correct my articles and posts so that incorrect information doesn’t continue to be sent out into the world as my work is shared on the internet.
I love the internet. I love how freely and easily we can share information and ideas with each other. But just because you can click “send,” “share,” or “like” doesn’t mean you should.
When it comes to facts on the internet, let’s think before we share! :)