Monday, July 29, 2013

Just because you saw it on Facebook doesn't make it true

    I love almost everything about Facebook, from the photo-sharing and the cute-animal videos to the free emoticons you can use in your chats. But God help us if Facebook ends up being a news source for people in a post-newspaper world.
    The potential power of a medium like Facebook can’t be overstated in this viral age. Anything I write on my page can be shared in a heartbeat by any of my 1,522 Facebook friends, whose own friends (and their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends) can then spread the word even farther afield in a nano-second.
    No harm done if we’re talking about an inspirational saying, an anecdote about our day or an amusing/heartwarming/heartbreaking video about babies, cancer, birth, death, or animals demonstrating human-like behaviour (a very popular category).  Even rude stuff doesn’t rile me up, seeing as that just reflects on the reputation of the person who posted it.
    But what passes for news on Facebook really scares me. And I wonder if any of us have even considered our role in promulgating lies, misunderstanding and even hatred through the simple act of clicking “Share.”
    A recent example from today’s Facebook postings: Photos that purportedly show an unidentified Mexican water taxi in Cabo San Lucas luring seals closer to the boat by holding a puppy over the railing. There’s one photo of a tourist holding a puppy on board the boat, with a black bar across her eyes to hide her identity, and another of a puppy in someone’s hand near the railing as a seal swims up.
     Maybe it happened that way, maybe it didn’t. I’m using it here solely as an example of how quickly a story like that is swept into the Facebook universe and becomes “truth,” regardless of whether it is.
In less than 24 hours, the post has been shared 83 times from the original site and netted 87 furious comments. Who knows how many additional shares and comments came after that as more and more people posted it to their own Facebook pages?  
    The commentators write that they are shocked, saddened, sickened, disgusted and otherwise outraged. Some are slagging Mexicans for abusing animals. Some are Mexicans pushing back with comments about Americans and Canadians trying to make a big deal out of something small when there are much bigger animal-welfare issues to worry about, like factory farming and dog fights. There is a vaguely racist tone through some of the exchanges.
      Other commentators are throwing around names of tour businesses that might be the culprits, based on somebody’s vague recollection that the boat where this happened had an orange canopy.
“I work in a job where I see hundreds of tourists each week and make many recommendations,” writes one angry commentator. “Believe me, I will show them this and let’s hope eventually [the water-taxi operator] goes out of business.”
For now, let’s not get into whether holding a puppy near a boat railing is animal cruelty. The point is, nobody in the entire comment thread verifies any specifics of the incident, and the photos could be of virtually any blonde person with a puppy anywhere in the world. The photo of the puppy at the railing could have been manipulated. We just don’t know.
Yet just by clicking Share, people verify the “truth” of the story to their Facebook friends.  The ripples can be felt literally all over the world. It’s like Richter-scale gossip, with the potential in the case at hand to damage the reputation of virtually every water-taxi business in Cabo San Lucas, cast a shadow over Mexicans in general as animal abusers, and ruin the business of some poor sod who just happens to have an orange canopy on his boat.
And that’s just one small example. Every time I see people sharing one of those all-too-common threads that purports to be identifying someone who is a criminal, an animal abuser, a pedophile or an otherwise horrible human being, I wonder how long it will be before somebody winds up dead at the hands of a vigilante because a person saw something on Facebook and presumed it to be true.
We’re all going to have to do our part here. I’m not suggesting that news via the mainstream media was ever a guarantee of truth and impartiality, but I can tell you that none of them would ever publish a vague story about a puppy that may or may not have been dangled near a seal somewhere in the world.
We’re entering into completely uncharted territory now that anyone with a computer is a news source. Each of us needs to think hard about how we’ll judge our sources of news and uncover any hidden agendas. We are all citizen journalists now, and we have to think about the potential to really hurt somebody – to foment hatred, racism and ignorance – every time we share something without a second thought as to whether it’s true.
Just because somebody’s your Facebook friend doesn’t mean they can be trusted as your news source. Next time you’re hovering over that Share button, think before you click.


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