Brace yourself for some bad news, folks. This week, famous bad guy Charles Manson endorsed Donald Trump for president. Also, it’s been revealed that Ted Cruz was once best friends with Fidel Castro. On top of that, Bernie Sanders has announced a plan to ban all trucks in the U.S. Yes, trucks. He might as well outlaw lunch buffets.
All of these bits of information would indeed be surprising if they were true, but they aren’t. I didn’t make them up, either. They’re just a few examples of fake news stories floating around cyberspace this week, and they’d be funny if people hadn’t actually believed them enough to pass them around.
Why do folks fall for these things, though? One of the reasons internet fabrications have so much life is that no one has to take responsibility for them. Sure, somewhere out there is the jerk who came up with this thing. Maybe he’s chugging Red Bull in his parents’ basement and blackmailing unsuspecting online daters. No one’s ever going to know his name, and he’s probably already moved on to coming up with a new fake meme, something involving Hitler.
Speaking of truth and accountability, think about that friend of yours who keeps posting these gems to Facebook. We all know that guy. Well, he’s never going to come back and say, “Hey, you know what? I was so excited to discover Ronald Reagan was a Satanist serial killer that I neglected to fact-check before I went on that all-caps rant.” Don’t be that guy.
Here’s another good reason to avoid jumping the gun: Some of the outrageous news stories on the internet are meant to be satire, and falling for them makes you look like a doofus. After President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba, the legendary satirical site The Onion ran a fake story about dozens of prospective refugees clinging to the wings of Air Force One. The piece was accompanied by a badly doctored photo, which should have been a dead giveaway. It wasn’t. In fact, noted debunking website Snopes.com reported numerous e-mails from users asking about the story’s veracity.
Speaking anecdotally, I saw at least three people of differing political orientations post this fake-out to their Facebook feeds, using it to prove that a) life in Cuba really sucks, b) Barack Obama is helping immigrants leave Cuba, making him a humanitarian, or c) Barack Obama is helping immigrants leave Cuba, making him an un-American jerk.
The writer and wiseacre in me sort of likes seeing people taken in by these false stories. It’s entertaining. That sense of enjoyment lasts a short while, though, until I remember one of the cardinal rules of satire: The people to be wary of are the ones who don’t recognize it as satire. (Pro tip: The only thing worse than being publicly fooled by a piece of satire is proclaiming your righteous anger at having been fooled. Don’t be that guy, either.)
But wait a minute, someone will say. Who fact checks websites like Snopes? This question may be posed by the same person who shared that post about how George W. Bush is the latest in a long line of shape-shifting lizard people who’ve been ruling the world since the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Yes, this is the guy who has serious concerns about intellectual rigor.
The answer is that even Snopes doesn’t claim to be an ultimate authority. In fact, they’re sort of famous for rendering the verdict “Undetermined,” a pronouncement that sometimes rankles folks. We’re often impatient with the answer “I don’t know.” It isn’t sexy, and above that, it doesn’t generate web hits. Worse, it smacks of relativism and uncertainty, two things rhetorical blowhards hate even more than apologizing for spreading misinformation.
Everyone subscribes to opinions, beliefs, convictions, and all the things that fall between, some logical, others iffy, and a few that are, let’s face it, sort of weird. Our supporting evidence may come from things we picked up via our parents, or during college, world travels, or late night television infomercials. Whatever our reasons for believing, we consider them The Best Reasons Ever, and we’ll often do everything within our power to keep them safe. The more integral the belief is to our worldview, in fact, the more tightly we hold on to it.
Every once in a while, this existential insecurity manifests itself in a phenomenon called confirmation bias, the all-too-human tendency to seek out and value information that supports our own point-of-view while discounting any dissenting evidence. Before you pat yourself on the head and think you’re exempt, don’t. We all have confirmation bias—except for those of us who are robots—and it’s never going to go away, so the best thing we can do is try our best to be vigilant. Above all, we should never let ourselves become part of the problem.
Rumors and conspiracies have been a part of us, as far back as one ancient guy looked at another and said, “That other dude’s a jerk, but I want people to think he’s a super-jerk. I’m going to make up something outlandish about him.” It worked, too, because people are gullible. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, the age of the internet, a nexus of knowledge that grants us access to information our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and it turns out selling lies has become an art form.
So what have we learned, kids? Before you pass on a story, check it out. Snopes.com is a decent place to start, but don’t stop there. Try to verify it in as many places as possible, checking as many ideologically varied sources as you can. Better yet, why not just let it pass on by?
Fake stories come and go, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. They’re like a virtual version of The Jerry Springer Show, where everyone screams at top volume and no one is wrong. All we can do is refuse to participate in the process. We can proclaim our honest intent all day long, but if we propagate these fake stories, we’re part of the problem.
Don’t be part of the problem.
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This piece was originally published in 2016 on US Represented at www.usrepresented.com