April Fools or Year-Round Fools?

Following my recent ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ comments, I am grateful to Jay Kuo (@nycjayjay) for a Tweet that helped me focus on one of the key issues about modern misinformation:

shoelacesWhy is April 1st the only day of the year that we question the reliability of what we read online? 

Whilst we are all particularly cautious about news stories on April 1st, many  (perhaps even most?) of us are guilty during the rest of the year of seeing something online and taking it at face value without much thought about its origin or legitimacy. Then, having passively accepted its reliability, we share it with friends and colleagues!

If you think this is a sweeping statement, consider a few scenarios. If you are a social media user, can you genuinely say you are not guilty of any of them?

  • Someone you know in your business sector or profession shares an online posting (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). You don’t have time to read it all but the heading looks good, you know they are good at what they do and you respect their opinion so you share/like the posting without reading past the first few lines. After all, they are a reliable source!
  • An item link in your Twitter feed has a good picture, an attention-grabbing headline and is topical. You don’t have time to read it (hopefully, you will get back to it later) but you like and retweet it in the meantime.
  • In the time when it was a regular occurrence, LinkedIn shows you a picture of someone you once met at a conference and invites you to endorse them for a particular skill. You have no idea whether they are any good at it but they seemed charming when you met them and they have lots of LinkedIn connections to whom you want to become visible. So you endorse him/her. After all, they would not say they were good at something unless they actually are – surely?

Potentially, there are many more comparable scenarios and, at the time of taking these actions, you probably think there is no harm done. But what if the person who posted the item you like, share or retweet had just done exactly the same? What if several people had shared the same story with all their contacts on a similar basis and only the originator had ever read it?

With regard to the LinkedIn endorsements, I know for certain that this has happened because I have been endorsed many times by people I know but who have never witnessed me demonstrating the skill they commend. Indeed, I have been endorsed more than once for NLP although I have never had any NLP training or knowingly practiced it!

In such circumstances, the action may be well-intentioned but I believe it reinforces the habit of passing on unvalidated information or unconfirmed ‘facts’.

If we are this glib about issues reasonably close to our own lives, are we losing the ability (or desire) to question what we see and hear as social media and online platforms replace traditional media as our primary source(s) of news and information?

propagandaAccusations of Fake News have caught our attention recently but the concept is not new. We used to call it propaganda! Traditional news agencies have to check their facts before publication and, that in itself is part of the problem. Whilst the BBC (for instance) is trying to find multiple independent sources to verify a news story, there are already tens, hundreds or even thousands of people pumping out online text, photographs and videos that they have created themselves or grabbed from another online source.

We must all be more rigorous in questioning what we see online – or repeat to those around us. We all played the game of Chinese Whispers as children. Are we now doing it in our daily adult lives?

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