One of the primary reasons that people have taken to the Internet as a form of entertainment is the need to be creative. 15 years ago writers were limited to print media, which made getting pieces published relatively competitive. At the very least an editor would need to approve your article, which meant that they vouched for your skill as a writer and the facts that you stated in the piece.
Now it’s possible for anyone to publish online, with very little oversight. With the advent of social media, you don’t even need a website to create and publish content for the world to see. We have become our own editors, and whether you rant on Facebook or publish a blog on Tumblr, you are now a writer of sorts.
I have been writing for niche websites since I was young. At that time you had to know HTML to publish content on the Internet, and that made webmasters reluctant to publish material written poorly or material that stated inaccurate facts. The advent of Google changed the game because volume overtook quality as the primary means for websites to reach more readers, and the advent of social media lowered the quality standard on the Internet as a whole.
Today at work a friend was telling a story about her child watching Sesame Street. It got the small group of employees on the subject of children’s shows, to which one replied “Did you know Mr. Rogers was an assassin?” I was struck with the idea that the soft spoken and gentile kids TV host had been a Marine sniper in Vietnam, but ultimately didn’t believe it. “It’s true, I read it. Look it up on the Internet when you get a chance”. So… I did. It turns out that this rumor has been circulating since the mid-1990s, and that Mr. Rogers was never a member of the military, and has been a preacher of TV host his entire adult life. I won’t even tell the coworker the truth because they’ll want to argue about it, and want proof of my allegations. How in the world did the burden of proof get put on me?
Yesterday a graphic showing the last five Presidents along with their contributions to the public debt came across Facebook. It struck me as odd that it showed Barack Obama with a much smaller contribution to the national debt than any of the previous four Presidents, so I decided to take a closer look. It turns out that the graph, while technically accurate, displayed a worthless measure and passed it off as proof that Barack Obama was the most fiscally responsible leader of my lifetime.
The graph essentially showed the amount of debt that each President had accumulated as a percentage of the total debt. Since Obama had started his first term with a 10 trillion dollar deficit, the 3.5 trillion that he racked up made his figure 34 percent. Meanwhile Ronald Reagan had contributed 1.8 trillion to a 4 trillion dollar debt, making his figure over 200 percent. Any economist will tell you that this is a worthless measure, but the average person figured that the use of percentages was important to adjust for inflation. Not to mention Obama had only been in office two years when the graphic was made. He is in fact on track to create 732 percent more national debt than Ronald Reagan.
This is remarkable to us because the graphic had several thousand shares and had prompted Facebook users to discuss how much more debt we had in 1985. When I pointed out the inaccuracies of the graphic, there were some users who even wanted to argue that I was wrong (obviously conditioned by years of political squabbling) in my observations. I was the one who checked the facts though, and in reality I couldn’t care less about which President won on the Facebook graphic. Hell, I wish it was Obama because that would mean we would have an improving economy. I was more concerned with everyone taking the graphic at face value, and propagating inaccurate information. (Note: Gross-Public-Debt as a percentage of the GDP is a much better statistic to use when comparing the economic success of successive Presidents’ administrations.)
I can’t be there to fact check every post made by my friends on social media. It is entirely up to you, the editor, to make sure that you only post accurate information. One of the best resources ever conceived on the World Wide Web is Snopes.com, a website run by a husband and wife team dedicated to chronicling and dispelling the stories that circulate online. They started when incredible stories started appearing in chain letters, and have continued as social media became the primary means to make bullshit go viral. I didn’t have to go to the White House website and pour over decades of facts and figures to learn that the Obama graphic was rubbish. All it took was a two minute visit to Snopes to search for and then read the commentary.
False reports of missing children and “Mr. Rogers was an assassin” are more prevalent than ever. They are always going to make a good story, after all things that are mundane don’t go viral. There will be lots of your friends comment in outrage and disbelief, but you’re hurting your reputation as an honest source with the readers who shake their head and move on to another post. It’s not a crime to be gullible, but passing on an outrageous story as the truth without confirming it only hurts your credibility.