People of the internet! In this age of information, we all have at our very fingertips more power to research and investigate an issue than at any other point in history. Use it.
The age of information is at risk of becoming the age of misinformation. You are active contributors and publishers to the online public sphere (if you post on Facebook, you are, in the eyes of the law at least, a publisher). There is nothing wrong, and whole lot of things right, with raising or promoting a cause which you are passionate about via social media. It has huge potential to allow us to reform and remake the world to be a better place. But if you do, you have a social responsibility and a moral obligation to ensure that the material you publish is accurate, true, and in the public interest.
Those with an agenda to push are getting better and better at manipulating the users of Facebook. Remember that while an organization itself may have a noble goal to end poverty, stamp out animal cruelty, or deport Justin Bieber, the social media manager they employ is there with the sole intent to get more likes at any cost. This is the one metric by which they justify their own existence. The use of graphic imagery as ‘click-bait’ is the most effective way to get likes, and so by tugging at your heart-strings, they use your compassion as a tool to further their own agenda.
With a third of adults (in the US) getting their news from Facebook, the line between entertainment and news becomes dangerously blurred. When civil war in the Congo is squeezed in between a video of Miley Cyrus smearing the last of her dignity against the latex trousers of a douche-bag and a photo of your aunt’s #vegan #healthy #organic chai latte (#nofilter), it loses something of its relevance. Worse, it creates a perverse incentive which discourages the reader from digging deeper to get a better, more complete understanding of the issue, instead allowing a passing and often erroneous impression to act as a placeholder for actual comprehension.
We’re all guilty of it – we see a headline, and form an opinion without investigating to the extent to which we should, and we tuck that opinion away into our arsenal of dinner-party quips and coffee-house jibes, for use at a later date. We quietly build this repertoire of incomplete and partial knowledge so that it may called upon later in conversational jousts, lest we be revealed as the culturally illiterate phonies that we are. No one wants to feel irrelevant or uninformed, and no one has the time to be an expert of anything. Instead, we try to know a little bit of everything.
Don’t just click share. Take the time to research, and view the issue from an alternate perspective, even if that perspective clashes with your own. Most of the time simply reading the article before you comment or share will suffice (NPR had some fun last April fool’s day by calling out such behaviour), but on some occasions you will need to dig deeper. Question the source and their motives. Challenge your own fundamental beliefs from time to time. Engage in discourse, not debate. Acknowledge and understand the effect of filters on the content you view online. And above all else, keep an open mind!
[RE-POST from June, 2013]