“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media, Part I

Capture

“You must not pass along false rumors.” Exodus 23:1

My friends know what a skeptical soul I am. Whenever I see a post on the social media, my first reaction is to shake my head and say, “Yes, but, how do you know this to be so?”

And they know me as the one who annoyingly responds on Facebook, “Is this true??”

I really, really, don’t like to be “had”. They “got” me badly, once, when I saw an announcement that MTV was going to start putting operas into their mix of music. MTV!! Twenty years ago, and it still burns me. Later I realized that the announcement came out on April 1.

Set aside videos of cute kittens or adolescents cracking up their skateboards. Let’s focus on those other things – political, social, religious, etc. – which get posted on social media and spread like wildfire. They go viral because of a factor in the human mind called “cognitive bias”. Everyone has cognitive bias = that when I hear things from certain sources, or which resonate with what I already “know” to be true, I more easily assume it’s true, at least until someone proves otherwise.

Let’s take an example: ISIS

In December, after the San Bernadino shootings, these two pictures circulated the internet. If someone put them on Facebook, you and I would probably be more likely to accept one as “real” and the other as faked or at least less important information. The first looks like a pro-ISIS rally, the second something else:

Photo 1

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 2

Answer: Both were taken in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo 1 was a march on Dec 5, 2015, by Muslims against ISIS. The other picture in front of “City Hall” is, I was able to confirm, Dearborn City Hall, located at 13615 Michigan Avenue; it was a march by Muslims again, against ISIS, in August 25, 2014. And I learned that there have been a number of these marches by Muslims in Dearborn.

Now, take a look at Photo 3, which I saw on reddit and on Facebook – photos don’t lie…or do they? Because a caption changes its entire meaning.

Photo 3

Photo 3

Just because it’s a photo doesn’t mean its message is true. Context means everything.

And since we’re speaking of Islam, here’s another picture – again, the image doesn’t lie, does it? Well – in these days of PhotoShop, they certainly do! For example:

Photo 4

Photo 4

This was part of the proof that NationalReport.com, a satirical site (fake news, goofily served up), faked up to support its funny story, “City in Michigan First to Fully Implement Shariah Law.” The article goes on to say that residents of Dearborn will be flogged if caught drinking or be stoned if they commit adultery. I find this story unfunny on more than one level. More on National Report below.

There’s a whole website, by the way, http://www.says-it.com, where you can make up your own fake church sign and post it on the net. That’s how the world got this one:

Capture

This next image is a fake, and it’s fun in a Three Stooges way, although it too has been circulated as an authentic fall from a skyscraper. In fact it is the 2003 work of a Chinese performance artist, who digitally erased the scaffolding and wires that were holding him up.

Photo 5

Photo 6

(I just found a nifty free program on the internet: you upload a picture, and it tells you where it came from: TinEye.com is a great tool the next time a friend of a friend posts a picture with a fiery caption.)

Confirmation bias means that we Christians might tend to accept this headline as plausible, because we want it to be true –

“Noah’s Ark Found but CNN Refused to Cover the Story”– “Ordinary people are hungry for this information, yet the organizations responsible for disseminating these facts seem to have an agenda to keep us in the dark. This is especially true when it comes to our ancient human history.”

Scary! CNN refused! Organizations! Ordinary people! Agenda! Keep us in the dark!

In fact, the story is dubious at best; and the major news outlets does cover Noah’s ark reports. Just look at CNN.com and search for “Noah’s ark.”

They circulate plenty of weird rumors about Christians too – for example, that a Christian woman rewrote the Harry Potter books, to replace magic with “miracles.” Or that the Vatican houses the largest porn collection in the world.

I have confirmation bias too, just so we’re clear! So, if I see the following link on Facebook tomorrow, I might be inclined to click on it!

Science reveals that 50-something evangelical males have the sharpest minds of any group in the US and should be allowed to vote twice in the coming election.

SATIRICAL WEBSITES

Some don’t realize that people actually make up stories as a prank. Purely as humor. They are meant to amuse people who are “in on” the joke, but they are also meant to be spread as rumors.

If you are politically conservative, an evangelical or a Roman Catholic, some of these sites exist in order to poke fun at how gullible conservatives, evangelicals and Catholics are! And if you are liberal, an atheist, or a Muslim or Buddhist, the same is true. And so when you accept their stories, you fall right into their trap.

People love to be outraged, and righteous outrage is addictive. Outrage over what’s really going on is right, and necessary. But let’s make sure we aren’t binging for our own pleasure.

National Report: America’s #1 Independent News Source (nationalreport.net). We mentioned the Shariah Law article above, and must consider the source. Of course, some will say, “Just because it’s in National Report doesn’t mean it’s not true!!” Yes, but remember: the article was written by a comedy newspaper, for the purpose of amusing some and frightening others – it’s not real! Their own disclaimer reads, “All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news.” Today’s articles include “Why Does President Obama keep getting Bristol Palin Pregnant?” (Sarah Palin fans get a lot of ribbing on NR!) and another that says Dr. Ben Carson has died (untrue and unfunny).

The Onion: America’s Finest News Source (theonion.com) – I do like this item:

Disney World Opens New Ordeal Kingdom for Family Meltdowns – Situated between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, the 350-acre property reportedly incorporates many of the most aggravating elements of Disney’s other parks and expands them into a creative and fully immersive world of irritation, which is said to include the longest lines in the entire resort, a convoluted layout that is only depicted in indecipherable cartoon maps that are not to scale, and 150 percent higher prices.

It’s just a joke people! As are their articles “EPA Urges Nation to Develop New Air Source” and a picture of a grimacing “Paul Ryan Quietly Doing Seated Ab Exercises Throughout State Of The Union.” The Onion’s motto is Tu Stultus Est (Latin for “You are a fool”), and it claims to have 4.3 trillion readers. Here’s a cute one: “Concept Car Designers Struggling to Think of Cool New Ways for Doors to Open.”

Unconfirmedsources.com – Here’s a satire from 2012, which I cleaned up a bit:

OBAMA ADMITS; PRIVATE SECTOR __. Just hours after saying the private sector is “doing fine” President Obama admitted that the private sector actually __ “…I realized after my speech that the economy __, people are unemployed and things are much __ than I thought”, Obama admitted. “I talked to my advisers before the speech and they told me everything was just great. From now on I will read the newspaper before I make a speech”.

It’s a joke!

The saucy reductress.com is a satire on women’s magazines (warning, NSFW). Think “Cosmo’s Evil Twin.” Or maybe Cosmo is the evil twin. Anyway, one article today is: “What Your Lipstick Says About How Confident You Were Two Hours Ago.” And “I’m Saving the Earth by Recycling My K-Cups to Make Dog Hats.” Realnewsrightnow.com has this headline from last year: “Donald Trump Demands Vatican Release Jesus’ ‘Birth Certificate’”.

Half the “fun” – if it is really funny – on satirical sites is reading the outraged reader comments, those poor, unclever folks who don’t get the joke. And while I enjoy a good satire, most of these websites know that they are creating disinformation which will be shared ad infinitum around the web. In some cases, it’s “information vandalism”.

Other satirical sites: TheDailyCurrant; FreeWoodPost; TheBorowitzReport; worldnewsdailyreport.com; rumormills.com; tribuneherald.net; cityworldnews.com; lercio.it; callthecops.net.

Here’s a useful website: http://www.fakenewswatch.com/

CLICKBAIT

Last year, Merriam-Webster added “clickbait” to its dictionary, with the definition “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

I run into two kinds of clickbait. The first is a link to a story that is so badly distorted that the headline is really a deceit. For example, this one from Britain: “UK Waterpark Bans Bikinis and Orders Visitors to Wear ‘Islamically Appropriate’ Clothing.” What an outrage, right?! So you click on to read the article – only to find that, in fact that was only for one day, when some Muslims had rented the park for their own community event. They then asked that Muslim women come dressed, not in a burka, as one might have inferred from the headline, but in jogging pants and a tee. Maybe you still find that unacceptable, but the whole truth is less outrageous, no?

Here’s another type, and I paraphrase: “This Iraq War Vet was Insulted by a Waitress – How He Responded Left Me Cheering! Click here to see it.” The bait is to make you want to see his delicious riposte. And unlike us, he was able to come up with his retort right on the spot. Here’s another fun one: “Kesha Cries in Court – After Realizing Selling Her Soul to  Satan was Wrong Choice.” Of course, the “lamestream” media has it that she cried because she lost her lawsuit.

We know why people click on such things, it’s because we want them to be true. And so sometimes we pass on untruth:

Ah, well, the truth is always one thing, but in a way it’s the other thing, the gossip, that counts. It shows where people’s hearts lie. Novelist Paul Scott

But, why do they want you to click on the clickbait?

Money.

Yeah, money. Many websites get their revenue through selling ads. You get thousands of people to visit your site to read some provocative story, and your income goes up. Simple as that.

Here’s a nice example from americannews.com, which illustrates the direct pipeline between your mouse and your emptied wallet:

“Carrie Underwood’s Best Friend revealed SHOCKING NEWS that left Carrie speechless!”

Uh-uh, NO, not Carrie Underwood! I cried. What did the friend let slip to the media: that Carrie was a closet Trilateralist? That Carrie was born a dude? What??!

No, the news was that the friend was having a baby! and Carrie was left speechless with joy!

Whew! Here’s my headline: “Carrie Underwood dodges clickbait bullet, fans can now breathe easily.”

Ah, but then directly underneath that headline were an ad to buy a phone service, an ad for a sea cruise, and an ad labeled “The rich want this taken down! Shocking video reveals secret to making money method!” (As it turns out, I know the secret already. It’s “put clickbait on the internet.”)

Buzzfeeds is pure clickbait (“What your favorite flavors say about you!” or “97% Of Adults Are Not Able To Pass This Elementary Test, Can You Pass?” – yeah, I guarantee you, you WILL pass, and you’ll invite all your friends to see if they can match your score, and that you all will be exposed to plenty of paid advertising as you take the test.) Upworthy, clickbait as well.

I live in Costa Rica, and about every time I go online I see an ad for “This Costa Rican Man is Now a Millionaire – Find out How!” (I checked – another dead end!). Or, I don’t know, “Warren Buffett invests in asparagus futures – you should too!”

The other motivation is political. Have you seen those memes, “Click here if you…” If you support Our Troops. If you Appreciate the Veterans. If you don’t Want Puppies to be Gassed. If you believe Cancer is a Bad Thing. Are you one of the 2% of the population that knows how to tie its shoes correctly?!  So you click on, and the next thing you know you’ve joined the Socialist Party, or supported a Frenchman for president, or bought a time-share in Damascus. Money again, mixed with politics. Remember that, the next time you are invited to click on “Click YES if you think that children should say the Pledge of Allegiance in the schools!”

Americannews.com is full of clickbait articles that provide some information with scandalous titles. Also wideawakeamerica.com. See http://www.fakenewswatch.com/conspiracy-theoryclickbait-websites

Click to see Part II

And Part III

RECOMMENDED LINKS:

My articles:

“‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ has its 50th Anniversary”

“Did a NASA Supercomputer Prove the Bible?”

“Christians and Myths”

Did They Discover a Giant Skeleton? Well, No.

“Christian Urban Legends”

Other sources:

http://skeptoid.com/blog/2013/03/16/trusting-the-internet/

http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/handy-rundown-internets-fake-news-si

‘”I don’t  believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media – Part I,’ by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D. in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] “I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part I […]

  2. […] Part I I began a long rant against internet disinformation. I’m against it for two reasons: I […]

  3. This put a big smile on my face. 🙂
    Like you I got taken in once right when I started using facebook. Never again!
    The Onion I knew for years was just for laughs, but some of the others with legit sounding names are not playing fair. Be silly, but be honest about it.
    I love your sample “bias”. It would be great if “people just like me” got a fair shake and the honor we deserve.
    Haven’t ever clicked on a “wait til you see what happened next” story; anyone who can’t pull me in with a good headline doesn’t deserve the time of day.
    But apparently, many more people click with their feelings not their brains.

    • Hi Cheri, thanks! Yes, clicking often is a gut instinct, not a rational one.

  4. I have a philosophical friend who posts pictures with the caption, “share if this is true,” when there is no truth content to the picture at all. His way of deflating click bait and social media disinformation, I think.


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