I’m not going to talk about Trump.
That’s not true. I’m going to talk about him. I’m going to talk about him a lot, I’m sure. But for my first post here, I’d like to focus on a more pervasive issue, one that I believe can be blamed for his rise, but which existed long before it, and will continue to be a problem after he is, god willing, gone. It causes far more problems than Trump supporting, including, but not limited to, vaccine denialism, climate change denialism, fear of genetically-modified food, and pretty much every conspiracy theory. That problem is the inability of the average person to critically evaluate sources and determine whether or not a website, meme, video, etc. contains accurate information.
I am now 26. When I was in school, we didn’t really cover this. We spent about an hour learning about what sources could and could not be cited for research papers. The class basically boiled down to “not Wikipedia.” No one taught us about hoaxes, or lies, or outdated information.
My upbringing taught me to mistrust sources, because my dad thought it was really funny to make things up and tell me about them as if they were true. So from an early age, I learned to double-check things – if Dad said something that sounded a little suspicious, I’d go ask Mom to confirm. But most people don’t have parents who lie to them for shits and giggles, I imagine, and so they miss out on what turned out to be one of the most important lessons I ever learned.
You can see this throughout the internet. People see a meme or link making an outrageous claim and they just share it, even become outraged over it, without checking the facts. Older people seem to be particularly susceptible, but young people are by no means immune. Many humorous examples can be found at http://literallyunbelievable.org/, which is dedicated solely to people who do not know that The Onion and ClickHole are satirical.
Let’s play a game. I’ll post a few images and you decide whether or not each one is trustworthy and accurate. These are images I have created. I have chosen apolitical subjects for these memes (at least, as of 10/27/2016 – I do not pretend to know whether these poor animals will someday become politicized through some strange turn of fate).
This one can be discounted immediately. It is unbelievable and cites no sources. If you want to be particularly skeptical, you can look it up online anyway.
This one is believable and cites credible sources. If you go to those citations, you will see that the information is backed up.
This one is a little surprising, but again, the citations back up the information.
This one seems kind of odd, right? Even if you study birds, you’ve probably never heard this. But wait — there are citations. But they are very small citations, and I didn’t do you the courtesy of putting them into TinyURL first this time. What happens if you type either of those URLs in (which no one will really bother to do)? SPOILER ALERT: the claim actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the cited work. I made it up, then linked to related pages on credible sites so that on the off-chance that someone DOES go to the links, but doesn’t read them, they’ll think I must be telling the truth.
A common method for disseminating incorrect information is to link to a source that agrees with the statement, but which is biased and/or a complete hoax. If you can’t find a certain claim from a real mainstream news site or a scientific journal, you can assume that it is not true. Of course, this is rather difficult to get people to believe now that we have certain candidates openly saying that “the media” (actually an incredibly vast group of people consisting of news networks, newspapers, radio stations, and websites) is always lying. That’s an issue I’ll address in another blog post, however.
How can we stop people from falling for hoaxes on the internet? Through education. Every single time you see someone fall for a hoax, point it out. This is easier said than done, especially if it’s a family member, but it’s very important. They may not like you for it. They may not even believe you. But you have a chance to convince not just them, but the people around them (including people silently watching an internet discussion), if you bring facts. Children in schools are now being taught how to tell a good source from a bad source — reach out to your local school district and ask if they teach this skill. They probably do. The people left behind are people in their mid-twenties and older, and they need to be called out when they perpetuate misinformation. We can change the culture of the internet if we stop letting these things stand unchallenged.