We have a serious misinformation problem around the world right now. That problem impacts huge issues, such as the 2016 election, COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter protests. It also impacts regular, individual people. There is a tendency to share first and check later. Or even to check a bit but simply trust a couple of “news” stories and then share. I put news in quotes because often people are simply relying on blog posts from who knows what source. And even if the article actually comes from a news site, the rush to print causes those sites to share information without properly vetting it.
Miss-identification is a Serious Problem
You may recall that when the bombing happened during the Boston Marathon, people identified innocent men as suspects. They had no real basis to do so and they caused those men serious trouble. One newspaper identified those gentlemen as “bag men”.
More recently, a man with a bicycle assaulted some young folks while they were hanging flyers for Black Lives Matters. People on the Internet identified several men, incorrectly. Those men started to have trouble online, including death threats. In the end, it was the police who identified the correct man, through old-fashioned police work. That man was arrested for his conduct, as he should be.
Stop with the Threats
Wrong people get identified, wrong names and addresses get shared, innocent people get threatened. Which makes me ask, why are we threatening people anyway? Death threats against people who did something wrong are not the answer. Making death threats is a criminal activity. Not something anyone has the right to do. So in addition to not sharing unvetted information, don’t threaten people because they did something you didn’t like.
Context and Time Matter
Especially common these days is for young people, say in their late teens and early 20s to get in trouble. Sometimes they actively post foolish things. Other times though, things come up from their past, prior to their application to college for example, and people insist that they get expelled from college. This is happening to a young woman right now. She says she was 16 when she posted an inappropriate picture online. Now she is in college and people want her expelled. If she was truly 16 though, does the college have the right to punish her for something she did when she was a juvenile? And if it does, should it? The posts on the situation are lacking information. I found the young woman’s Facebook page around the time her trouble started and that is where I found a statement in which she claimed she was 16. No other place had this information. What is the truth? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else.
How mature were you when you were a child? We were lucky the Internet wasn’t around when we were young. Imagine if we risked having our lives destroyed now because of something we did when we were young? I wonder what will happen in the next ten or twenty years when young people head towards middle age and find their political campaigns destroyed because of something they did when they were teens. Or get fired from a job because of a picture they posted thirty years before. Is that really fair? Is it really what we want? It is, perhaps something to consider before you share something from years ago. Especially when the person was very young at the time.
Fake Pictures and Deep Fake
Remember also that pictures and videos can be faked. It doesn’t take much to alter a photo to a degree that only an expert can tell it was faked. And let’s face it, we aren’t looking carefully to see if things are faked. We just look long enough to be outraged or amused and click share.
It used to be mainly questionable governments that faked pictures, for example, Stalin was known to fake images, but now it is very common among all sorts of governments, regular people, and satiric news sites.
Click-Bait News and Outright Lies
There are many sites that exist simply to get clicks. They share the most outrageous and fake headlines they can for clicks which lead to advertising money. Some people do not realize the sites are intentionally fake, share the information and all of a sudden we have a story that is entirely fake being shared as true. This gives credence to President Trump’s complaints about “fake news”. The myriad fake posts and fake news sites allow him to attack legitimate news sources simply because there is so much bad information everywhere. This foments a view that legitimate news sources are not legitimate. The reality though is that the real news sources, for the most part, are accurate if slanted. Even so, it is our obligation to check those news sites too. They are in a rush to get to print or video and they make mistakes sometimes. Or they eliminate information that gives us the true context of what is going on.
Be Careful What You Share
The Internet is forever. And as much as we want to share information and bring attention to people who have done wrong, we also have an obligation to be careful what we share. This goes for sharing stories about politicians who we don’t like because what we see agrees with our way of thinking. It most certainly goes for sharing information about people before we really know what is going on.
Research, Research, Research
Before you share something inflammatory, check several sites. Look at resources that are trusted for fact-checking. Consider FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, for example. Don’t dismiss a story simply because you don’t like it or it doesn’t agree with your political or personal view. And don’t share something simply because it does agree with your political or personal view. Yes, it takes time to verify before you share. If you aren’t willing to verify, maybe just don’t share. Not everything has to be shared, and most likely, someone else will look into whatever it is and share it. You can always verify and share later if you feel the need to do so.
Do You Have the Right Person?
If you are looking into a story about a specific individual, try to look for the person’s online presence. Try to make sure you have the right person. Look at pictures. Look at where the person lists themselves as living. Verify they are who you think they are. People often link to the wrong Twitter or Facebook profile, bringing down the wrath of thousands or more on the innocent.
Should the Person’s Life be Destroyed?
Of course, you also might want to wonder whether whatever the person did is really enough to bring down the wrath of the world on them anyway. I do my best to be a good person, but sometimes, especially since I do work in the arena of ethics and online conduct, I wonder what would happen if I made a stupid mistake? What if I said the wrong thing on the wrong day? What if I got caught in a bad mood and people decide I am a bad person? What if it happens to you? Mercy is not a bad thing. Especially when there but for the grace of God go you or me.
Correct Your Mistakes
No one is perfect. I have shared things that turned out to be wrong before. It happens. When we share something and find out later that we are wrong, it is incumbent upon us to remove the incorrect information and let people know that we were wrong. I often see people leave posts up when they have been plainly shown that the information was wrong, even admitting that it was wrong. That is not how to handle the problem. It is necessary to either edit the post and make it clear, in that post, that the information was wrong and explain why, or remove the post and create a new one. Leaving the old post with nothing further just leaves it for people to share. Most people will never bother to read the comments and see that the original post was wrong. And, again, most people want to share things that protect their world view.
Just Think Twice Before You Click
All I am asking is that people think twice and be careful. There is evidence that Russia is already seeking to interfere in the 2020 election. We are in the middle of numerous crises where the failure to have correct information has made things worse. Many of us get the bulk of our news from social media. In this modern age, each of us has a responsibility to check before we spread information that could be harmful to an individual, the country, or even the entire world.