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

I have written elsewhere: “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!” I invite you to read the first two parts of this series before reading Part III:

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part I

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part II

Now I would like to update these with a Part III, with several other sources of doubtful “facts.”

ANONYMOUS INSIDERS

There is a whole genre of exposé literature that follows this formula: “I am an ex-[whatever] and I am going to reveal the shocking inside secrets.” Ex-Communist. Ex-Mormon. Ex-Satanist. Ex-Jesuit (Jack Chick’s man, “Alberto,” made a whole career with that claim). Ex-nun. Ex-physicist working for CERN. Ex-CIA operative. Ex-NASA scientist. Ex-Muslim. Ex-Freemason. In 2011 the internet was abuzz with “I was in the Illuminati: I’m Going to Tell you Everything, Shocking Expose.”

Of course, sometimes these revelations are legitimate: (more…)

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

In Part I I began an extended-play rant against internet disinformation. I’m against it for two reasons: I don’t like false information; I don’t like to look foolish when I fall for it.

Here are other areas where we need to show some healthy skepticism:

ECHO CHAMBER EFFECT

In 2015 the social media were packed with people reporting that Pope Francis had announced that Islam and Christianity were equally valid and that the Koran and the Bible were basically the same message: “Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah. These are all names employed to describe an entity that is distinctly the same across the world.”

“I’m the pope, but I’m broadminded!”

People were outraged! The Vatican denied it which, for some of us, was evidence that it must have really happened. It appeared on the bogus Washingtonpost.com.co, conservativebyte.com, also civictribune.com (which altered the story, so that the pope supposedly said this at the White House). So, I have seen the same exact story, usually quoted verbatim, on four websites. Does this mean there are four “sources”? No, only one, and that original source (National Report again!) said they were just joking! But the echo effect means that the reader senses that, “It must be so, because everybody is talking about it!” The National Report was also responsible for the spoof that the Pope wants everyone to be micro-chipped by 2017.

I am not a Catholic, and once in a while people criticize me for overturning false rumors about the Pope. And every time, it takes me by surprise: after all, shouldn’t I stand up for truth, even if by debunking a lie it aids a group I don’t belong to? Shouldn’t I stand against lies about Republicans and lies about Democrats?

Here is a recent example: Paula White supposedly promised that if you pledged a certain amount of money to her work, then when you died she would raise you from the dead! Now, in my opinion, White is a in general scam artist. And yes, she actually was trying to vacuum an additional $1144 dollars from her devotees. But when I looked it up, I found that she had promised that the money would clear out whatever was dead in each person, but not that she would physically raise them from the dead. Far be it from me to defend Paula White, whose message I find reprehensible on so, so many levels; but truth is truth, right?

On the flip side, I did pass along on social media that story that Joel Osteen had weaseled out from opening his church to Houston flood victims. It’s because, after chasing down the story, investing way more time than I should have, I concluded that the charge was correct, that among other things he had posted photos that implied that his church had been flooded, when it wasn’t. But let no-one say I passed along a rumor just because I don’t like Osteen! One hardly needs this particular flood anecdote to be able to repudiate his message! But truth is truth, right?

For the Christian there is a special sort of news source, the Prophetic Site. If one blogger says he, I don’t know, saw four grim horsemen riding around in the field ‘back of his farm, then the story will spread far and wide within days, if not hours.

TABLOIDS

Ah, for the days when tabloids were clearly labeled and placed at the supermarket checkout. Then you could give a quick glance and find out when Elvis was spotted with what Venusian or how a Wolf-Boy was loose in the Maine woods.

Here’s one you won’t soon forget:

wtf tabloid headline

Now you just have to click on and find tabloids online, for example, WorldNewsDailyReport.com. Read all about it! “Man who spend 57 Years Counting the Bricks in the Great Wall of China.”

Of course, (more…)

“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. (more…)

Are you kidding me??

My name is Gary, and I am a recovering compulsive kidder. Yes, it’s true. No fooling, I mean it.

Probably my ultimate attempt at “pranking” took place at the university. See, what happened is, I managed to get my hands on some official college stationary. I didn’t boost it, by the way! It seems to me that we found it in the trash. Anyway, I used it to write a fake letter to a student who had previously pranked me; in the letter, the department told him he might be getting suspended for being so immature.

Just kidding!

Just kidding meme

Another incident: years back I plotted out what would have been my definitive prank. A nearby Christian ministry was thinking of buying a piece of land, and it got me thinking: I started designing a mock-up for an “old newspaper article”, which was to recount how the property was the site of an old Indian burial ground and that, well, there was a long history of spectral appearances. I was going to stain it with some tea to age it, and then “discover” and share it with the purchasers at some point during the negotiations. And shortly afterward, of course, reveal it as a gag. But, I decided to wave it off. The Indian Burial Ground Prank was, I realized, beyond the pale even for me – I had finally found my limit. Or perhaps hit bottom. There are other anecdotes, but I think I’ll just hold off on telling them.

But those were years ago. Really, I don’t do that stuff anymore. Still, long after I stopped launching these weapons-grade pranks, I was still known as a “kidder”, and this is the gist of my confession here. (more…)

“So I once knew a guy who…” Preachers who stretch the truth

A famous visiting preacher, the Rev. Johnson, is wrapping up his message on sacrificial love. He concludes with a story:

In the church where I used to be the pastor, there was a boy named Jimmy, 10 years old. He was good-hearted and liked by everyone in the neighborhood. One day Jimmy saw the little girl next door run out into the street after a lost ball, just when a truck came barreling towards her. Jimmy didn’t have to think twice – he dove into the street and pushed the girl out of the way, but not quickly enough so he could escape; the truck knocked Jimmy flat. The driver jumped down and held Jimmy while he was dying. Later, choking back the tears, he told the boy’s parents: “The last thing he said was, ‘Mister, tell my folks it’s okay; I just did what Jesus would have done.’”

The preacher’s voice catches as he tells the story; he concludes his message, and there is not a dry eye in the house.

You are so taken with this story that you try to track down more information. To your disappointment, you find out that the newspaper in that town had never run a story about anyone even resembling “Jimmy.” What’s more, the local police have no record of such an accident. So, you find out, Jimmy never said those words; he never saved that little girl; in fact, Jimmy never existed. It was all made-up; a gripping story, but untrue. [1] (For our purposes, we will use the word “untruth” rather than “lie”, since untruth is a broader category).

Given that the story had its desired effect – people left the building, dedicated to be more loving – was the preacher justified in inventing the story, even giving a name and composing the lad’s final words? Does the end justify the means? I will argue that he does not. Even further, can Rev. Johnson fall back on the defense, “Wellll now, it was just an illustration to make a point”? A news reporter would be fired for taking that same liberty.

Whether in sermons, political speeches or motivational talks I have sometimes sensed that a “true story” that “really happened” sounded just a little too perfect. I’ve wondered how come some preachers seem to have experiences that lend themselves neatly to sermon illustrations, while the events of my life don’t come out so tidy. I suspect I might be hearing a fiction or, as Hollywood assures us, a tale “based on a real story”.

To have your book recommended by Oprah’s Book Club is virtually a guarantee that sales will skyrocket. That’s what happened in 2005, when she announced that James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was a must-read. The publisher advertised it as a “brutally honest” report. Frey wrote how he had been an outlaw, wanted in three states, in prison multiple times, on drugs, in a train accident, that is, he was living proof of what goes wrong when young people go astray. He sold millions of copies; but then much to Oprah’s chagrin, it turned out that the publisher had not properly verified the facts. Many of the key events were simply made-up: his only jail time was a few hours he spent in the local lockup while a friend arranged bail. [2] (more…)