This post was originally published on Medium on Sept. 25, 2016.
A story of a political argument between Facebook friends.
I just finished this piece by Hanna Brooks Olsen. It’s lovely and I highly recommend it. (Republish note: the irony is not lost on me that as I republish old posts in order to save them, things I linked to in those posts have since disappeared.)
I also felt properly chastised as I had recently participated in many of the don’ts of the piece. As in, don’t start an argument with someone over a highly inaccurate post they had published. Yes, I know hopeless and ill-advised. But frustration got the better of me and before I know it, I had commented. You can judge me if you want, but you know you’ve done it too.
The person soon texted me, unhappy that I had publicly challenged the content of their post. I quickly texted back why I did. Among those reasons being that the vast majority of my friend group and I regularly engage in polite, often disagreeing debate regarding the content we post. I don’t overly get upset when someone posts an opposing argument. Because we’re all adults and we can talk about these things. Suffice it to say, I didn’t think much of posting the comment on this individual’s post.
As a journalist, this is a multilayered problem for me. I hate — despise — how easy and frequently demonstrably false information is posted on Facebook (or, you know, the internet). And this post relied heavily on specific numbers that even a basic Google search revealed to be very wrong. And it drew a completely unsupported, tone-deaf and somewhat racist conclusion about a major problem happening in this country.
Our text message exchange continued and quickly devolved. The person argued that they didn’t need to fact check each part or number mentioned because it was the overall point that mattered. Of course, my brain is yelling that the if none of the supporting information is factual, the overall point has no basis.
The next text message said it doesn’t matter if the post is correct or factual, to them it was. “Just because you think something is not a fact doesn’t mean you are right,” they added.
And I could not stop from replying. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not the hero of the story here, spreading the light of knowledge and understanding. Spoiler alert, there’s never a hero in this situation.)
Facts aren’t something you can feel are correct or not. They either are or they aren’t. They are provable, either having evidence to support them or not. What I think or what you think has nothing to do with it.
This reply did not go over well. Obviously. Because logic has no place here.
And fool that I am, I keep responding to these texts because in some warped way it feels like we’re having a conversation about this and maybe, just maybe, we can reach a conclusion. This is a reasonably intelligent person, and we have a level of mutual respect. Surely, this shouldn’t be a big deal.
I walked away from two observations from the exchange. First, this person felt that no one had any right to correct or disagree with their post. As far as they were concerned, facts were irrelevant to their personal truth. This is a sentiment that appears in studies on whether facts and evidence matter when trying to convince someone. Second, this person felt they had absolutely no responsibility when it comes to sharing incorrect information.
Unsurprisingly, they later deleted my comment and replaced it with a message saying someone disagreed with them and said the information was incorrect. The person said they hadn’t fact checked it and if that’s a problem for you, move along. The next comment was a reply from another person saying there’s too much incorrect information on Facebook and it’s irresponsible to share more. The person replied that they were only being sarcastic and the info was fine.
So I’m stuck here. Because I see this as a symptom of a larger problem.
We’ve all had these exchanges. Whether it’s skittles or a new political ad or some absurd post that concludes with some variation of “98% of you aren’t brave enough to share this,” “you won’t see this in the news,” or “if you don’t like it, you can leave [this country].”
And the larger problem is that there is a frequent abdication of personal responsibility about the things people share on social media.
There’s a continuum of false things in terms of severity of impact on the world. It starts with the insufferable copyright posts that are supposed to protect a user for all eternity against Facebook using their images. And tapers off on the other side of horrifically false posts designed to convince people that at any moment they are going to be murdered in their home by varying types of bogeymen depending on the origin of the content.
Where does the responsibility rest for fact-checking people as individuals on social networks?
In journalism, there’s a whole niche in the industry for fact-checking.
There’s a lot of people watching what media outlets, partisan groups and companies are saying.
But we face a tricky human-interaction problem when we try to fact check each other.
While talking with the person from above, they said that they didn’t fact check their own posts before posting them, because they expect that their friends will check for their self.
And that sort of it’s-not-my-fault-someone-believed-it mentality that frankly aggravates the hell out of me. You didn’t even take the time to check it before you posted, do you really believe that the average person scrolling your feed is going to check it?
And while you can say it’s just Facebook and pretend that this doesn’t matter, it does. Facebook is one of the largest, most widely used platforms online. Sixty percent of Americans say they get their information from Facebook. And people trust information more when it comes from someone they know.
We’re experiencing many troubling events in the world. Events that aren’t just tragic, but complex, nuanced and very important and very real to the people that are affected by them. We don’t need more confusion. We need clarity. We need open conversations. We need to be willing to be challenged on our assertions and listen rather than go in defensive mode.
So I have questions.
What do we do?
How do we handle the sheer amount of false information perpetuated from our online connections?
We can’t and shouldn’t disconnect from anyone with opposing viewpoints. The echo chamber is bad enough.
How do we have quality conversations with each other about the news and what’s happening in the world?
The status quo isn’t enough. The polarization isn’t enough. The ignorance, both intentional and casual, isn’t okay.
We all deserve better.
I’m sorry I don’t have answers on this. I don’t. It’s not just a technology problem, it’s a communication problem.
All I can offer is a promise that I do my best to share information that I know is factual and if I misstep, I look forward to a open, helpful, constructive conversation about it.
The world is so much bigger than any one of us and our individual experience and our individual knowledge.
Social networks were supposed to bring us together and foster exchange of information. It’s up to us to make sure it’s real.
Note on republished posts: In an effort to consolidate and preserve my online work, I'm re-publishing my own writing on this site. Posts will stay live and archived on their original sites for the sake of preserving links (for as long as those sites are still live). Content produced for other publications will remain unique to those publications, but I will include links on my work page.