Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dear Facebook—Please Stop Reposting Bullshit

I come by my distrust of Facebook political memes honestly: I got suckered. In early April 2015, I reposted a graphic accusing Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) of saying something so totally tone-deaf, yet so consistent with my prejudices against her, that I accepted its veracity without double-checking. Sadly, it was crap. Senator Ernst never said the quote attributed to her; she wasn’t even interviewed on Fox News, or anywhere else, the day the meme cited.

Everything in here, except Senator Ernst's name, is fake.
Having gotten caught with my trousers around my ankles publically, I’ve become somewhat attuned to sloppy online myth-peddling. Thus, when a story appeared on my Facebook feed this week quoting Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) saying “The Texas floods are caused by Native American rain dances,” my bullshit detector started hitting marked high notes. The Stately Harold included three lengthy quotes, purportedly from a call-in radio show, attributing recent destructive floods to Native American “black magic.”

Several aspects should’ve tripped skeptical readers’ attention. Why, for instance, does the story not identify what radio station Cruz allegedly spoke this statement on? No call letters, no DJ name, no website link, nothing. Considering that nearly every audio broadcast today gets preserved on SoundCloud, Spotify, or iTunes, the prospect of no in-text links seems highly improbable. Legitimate news-gathering organizations generally cite sources; even anonymous links, that traditional cable news bugbear, require some formal verification.

Or how about the website’s name? Many newspapers are called the Herald. Harold is an Anglo-Saxon male name. Like the National Report or Der Postillon, the Stately Harold sounds just serious enough to persuade passive readers. Visit the Stately Harold’s “About” page, though, and you’ll find this disclaimer: “The Stately Harold is a satirical website. None of the stories have a grain of truth to them and the opinions do not belong to real people.”

Senator Ted Cruz, whose name alone is enough
to reduce leftists to gibbering outrage
One can only imagine readers didn’t bother clicking any other links on the Harold story. If they had, they would’ve found claims that, following the FIFA scandal, the World Cup has been cancelled forever. Or Sasha Obama coming out as transgender. Or columns by “20-year-old feminist Cassidy Boon,” whose editorials are a virtual mishmash of fashionable undergraduate outrage in the best Tal Fortgang “I’m smarter than you” tradition. The whole site is veritable left-wing clickbait.

This story, however, managed to trip enough readers’ predilections against Senator Cruz to get rep-eated on social media. The fake quotes sound just enough like something Senator Cruz would say, something just obtuse enough, to ruffle liberal feathers. And it apparently worked exactly as planned. Besides getting repeated on Facebook, within four hours, several people had used Harold’s chosen Twitter hashtag, #CruzRainDance, in all seriousness, proving people will believe anything that panders to their outrage.

I’ve recently commented about how pedophile scares travel faster than police responses. Or how people base economic opinions on umbrage rather than evidence. But let’s say it aloud: facts are sloppy, clumsy, unwieldy beasts. They require people to slow down, think about what they’re saying, and not repeat blithering idiocy. When people post based on outrage, they get hasty. They don’t seek primary sources, don’t separate reality from bullshit, and apparently can’t take a joke.

It’s easy to find examples of this. Three years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office got openly mocked for taking seriously a report entitled “Guantanamo Prisoners To Receive GI Bill Benefits,” first published on satire website DuffelBlog. More recently, an anti-Caitlyn Jenner Facebook post went viral before the original author discovered his chosen photo proved the exact opposite of what he claimed. Anger travels faster than facts; social media’s global reach greases the journey.

Social media creates an environment well-suited to propagating snap judgments and hasty generalizations. Ten, fifteen years ago, we had to type everybody’s e-mail addresses into the “To:” field; ten years before that, we had to actually venture to our local pub or coffee house and hope our friends were physically present to vent our spleen. Now one mouse click can scatter our outrage worldwide, before we’ve double-checked anything. Believe me, I’ve stepped in that trap.

So let’s make a pledge, together, right now. When we see something online so outrageous that it flips our switches, let’s agree to double-check its veracity before clicking “share.” Let’s promise that, if we cannot find primary sources, we’ll at least find corroborating stories, to ensure we’re not spreading bullshit. Our lives, digital and offline alike, are choked with sweltering partisan sewage anymore. Join me in promising to not add to this suffocating environment anymore.

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