There’s the old statement that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This was popularized by Mark Twain and has oft been used to say that one can bend statistics to make any point they want, even one that is not true.
Maybe that statement needs to be updated for the 21st century? In our modern times, there are people who create false social media posts to make any point they want and then it gets picked up and amplified in the online echo chamber of social media. Why simply bend statistics when you can bend the entire facts of the world to support your viewpoint?
This problem has been around for years and has given rise to popular fact check sites like snopes.com. Have you ever shared something that sounded true to you only to hear later that it was not? Have you ever called someone out on a distributed lie after you stopped to check its truthfulness before passing it along yourself? I know that I can answer yes to both.
Of course, the problem is that social media is happening in a fast pace world where there are always more and more and more posts coming at you and if something sounds reasonable and supports what you tend to believe, it is so easy to pass it along to your followers and friends without questioning if it is true. Quick posts feed an insatiable desire for “likes”, the currency of Facebook.
I know that what I see on Facebook and other sites is a skewed version of the world. I am politically progressive and tend to get progressive opinions continuously tossed back at me. You really have to make an effort to see other points of view….and then, let’s face it, we really don’t like reading things that disagree with us. However, if you want to take a moment and see how split viewpoints can be, check out this page from the Wall Street Journal that gives you “red” and “blue” feeds side by side on certain hot topics.
This week Buzzfeed reported that “three big right-wing Facebook pages published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analyzed, and three large left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts.” Neither figure is something to be proud of. Furthermore, it was reported that there is a cottage industry of social media lies produced outside the US. “These sites plagiarize or aggregate stories, both real and fake, from right-wing U.S. sites, then slap provocative headlines on them and post them to Facebook,” reports Slate. And, it has been reported that Facebook’s handling of such false posts could have impacted the election. This is exacerbated by the fact that up to 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
To be clear, social media can and does serve a useful purpose as I have written about in the following stories: “Twitter and Facebook — Do They Connect Us or Divide Us?” and “FaceBook Clicks Away at the Echo Chamber“. However, tools can be used to build us up or tear us down. It is all in how we use them. We are called to recognize that we must use social media wisely.
So what can you do?
Start by being aware. Click through some of the links above and familiarize yourself with the issue. Do your own research on the matter.
Don’t trust everything you read on the internet. Use sites such as snopes.com or your own Google searches to fact check things.
Don’t pass along lies. Don’t accidentally contribute to the problem. And if you ever get called out on one that slipped by you, admit the mistake to your social media contacts. Better to try to undo the mistake than to let it continue to multiple.
Get your news from a variety of sources. If you are up to the challenge, I urge you to check out the website allsides.com for a real walk among multiple perspectives. I have written on this topic a number of times before such as this article Take Control of Your News from over 6 years which gives you a number of tips on how to get a more “fair and balanced” news presented to you.
Speak up and let others know that social media lies are unacceptable. Let Mark Zuckerberg know that you don’t appreciate Facebook’s lackadaisical approach to its role in the erosion of truth. Share your thoughts on this subject (and this post) with others.
And don’t forget the three kinds of lies to watch out for….lies, damn lies and social media.