Last week I got engaged—but only because the internet SAID I was. When it came to me, this feeling of wanting to be engaged, I did the only thing any sane person living in this era could do: I blasted it on Facebook. What better means is there of sharing a “life event” of such magnitude than projecting it from the very center of the social universe. It seemed logical to me anyway—especially if you want to get people all riled up for no good reason.
Okay, so it’s true: I didn’t REALLY get engaged (except to “being awesome”). But, the social experiment did reveal a few things worth learning. Inspired by an article a friend sent me last week entitled, Breaking News is Broken: Don’t watch cable news. Shut off Twitter. You’d be better off cleaning your gutters, the article makes a pointed argument about the dangers of fast news and the role of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
As a means of simulating the folly of social networks and their participants, I decided to fabricate a breaking news story of my own. The purpose was to understand the ease with which acceptance and the spread of bogus news—unverified—can happen through social media platforms. Here’s the low down.
One of the greater factors in creating a firestorm of bogus news is the “serious” factor. The news has to be something of significant value, a real “HOLY SH*T” kind of moment. No one cares about that Venti Chai Latte you’re sipping on, or the fact that mankind needs to colonize space over the next hundred years because current energy demands aren’t sustainable (can you taste the irony on that last one? Because I’m laying it on pretty thick).
No. People want to know that they should run down to their nearest supermarket because Twinkies might never be in stock again; people want to know “Who Done it?” so they can know who to hate (Sigh). When speculation about the identity of those responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombing jumped from Reddit to Twitter—despite no corroboration from other news outlets—no one batted an eyelash. The news was serious enough for people to take it seriously.
In the case of ordinary people like myself, getting engaged is about has high profile an event as you can get. Needless to say it turned some heads and got people talking—and not just about the disappointment women everywhere felt knowing that I was no longer available. People wanted to be involved in a significant event, no matter how insignificant a person I am.
Okay, we expect absolute crap from Fox News, but CNN? Come on. They were halfway decent until this major folly. When CNN first claimed that a suspect had been arrested for the bombing, and then proceeded to backpedal off a statement resulting from their own sources without acknowledging fault, something inside of me died. I felt a large lump form in my throat and I got that panicked feeling you get when the doctor tells you, “This won’t hurt a bit”, because you know that dude is lying his balls off. You ask yourself: Where are the good guys? Who can you trust? And, does my health insurance cover torture?
Up until now, the bold integrity of free information promised by the Web was considered infallible. In comparison to the propaganda news machines controlled by corporate America, Web based sources like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, have long been touted by Internet buffs to be the balancing agents for truth and clarity. It’s because of this dogma, held sacred by social media advocates and the users of such platforms, that I was able to convince people of the lie, that I was engaged.
As a person, people trust me to be truthful; but more importantly, they trust Facebook. People have faith in social media and faith in how people use it. Facebook has become a public and sacred enough space where daring to post a lie of this magnitude would almost seem unthinkable. And so, unknowingly, faith in social media has come to equal faith in people. And yet, no matter how we communicate, people are still subjected to the same kinds of behavioral influences that cause us to make mistakes. Group think and mob mentalities, for example, are big problems with social media. I received a few questions about my engagement at first, but once the likes and comments built up, people stopped asking questions and were convinced by the majority’s unity in belief.
Pictures are convincing. Remember when your online boyfriend/girlfriend sent you that stunning “self pic” of themselves. You had no real way of confirming whether or not that photo was of them, or whether they even knew the person in the photo for that matter. On the Internet, pictures aren’t proof of anything except one’s ability to post them. But, when we see photos posted alongside information, we automatically link the two and subscribe to the authenticity of the overall message.
When Reddit and Twitter blew up with the identity of a missing Brown University student falsely accused of the bombing, they posted a picture of him as well. It sounds silly, but we often tend to employ a kind of automatic logic that says, “They’ve got a picture! It’s true!”. We don’t even think about it so much; the processing just doesn’t happen.
Once my profile picture had changed, showing a picture of me and my girlfriend, all bets were off. All the naysayers and skeptics surrendered and joined the others’ comments:
“I thought you were joking! Congrats!”
“You weren’t kidding! Congratulations dooode!!!!!”
Bogus info isn’t just a minor nuisance—a hangnail is a minor nuisance. Unverified information can cause catastrophic damage as it results in the consolidation of attention and effort around an event that, well, is a huge waste of time. When, finally, clarity does enter the situation, the truth feels less like a victory and more like a consolation prize. The resources wasted on believing the lie seem less available when we’re asked to accept the truth. We become angry, and insulted at our deception, feeling perfectly willing to abandon any other demands of our ability to care.
Web platforms Twitter and Reddit prompted the wrongful accusation of two individuals blamed for the bombing in Boston, both of whom and whose families were harassed and vilified without just cause. Their identities and photos now associated with the Boston Marathon Bombing, the negative effects are everlasting, as the populace lacks the resources to undo the mental conditioning tying them to suspicion.
Whenever it is that we finally learn of our deception, when people learn that I am not really engaged, how will they react? They might feel angry, insulted, and betrayed. They might label me a liar, untrustworthy, and a manipulator for leading them on. But, then I might ask them why they did nothing to seek the truth for themselves. You saw something on the Internet and you just accepted it? In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Who’s more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?”
Where’s the Follow-Through?
The ease by which social media platforms allow the spread of news is often highlighted as an advantage over conventional media outlets. But being able to say something to the world at the push of a button (literally), also means that helping and hurting get an equal share of airtime. It’s just as easy to spread valid and important information as it is to spread bogus rumors. This subtlety is often glossed over by the heavy hitters of social media in an attempt to sell the image of open source integrity. But open source just means exactly what it implies—open to anyone and anything, even bullsh*t.
The real kicker comes when we examine the follow-through of those who learned of my (fake) engagement. I received exactly two genuine phone calls, and two others that I helped prompt with phrases like “If you really want to know, call me.” That’s a pretty low percentage of the congratulations messages I got.
There’s a special applause reserved for those who expended the effort to call me directly and inquire for themselves, just exactly, what was going on in my life. Rather than join the mosh-pit of comments, whose congratulations seemed equally appropriate for my ability to click a button, these few persons chose to find out what was going on BEFORE investing their hopes, dreams, and well wishes. That’s an important lesson; that’s a lesson that liberates a population absolutely. Because not all prisons of conformity and oblivion appear in the form of a man wearing a ridiculous mustache, shouting at the top of his lungs about what we should believe. Sometimes, it is we who create such prisons, and only we can break the making of our own chains.