An Alternate Approach to Social Media Misinformation and Outrage

If you are like me, you may be suffering from outrage fatigue. Social media is raging out of control, and political discourse is becoming increasingly angry and radical.

If we take a step back, we can see that a fundamental issue is a failure to agree on the underlying facts. When two sides operate from completely different fact sets, there is little hope of constructive dialogue. In my view, the primary source of this disconnect is the increasing reliance on social media in the place of journalism as our source of news.

When we hear a report on the evening news, few of us stop to wonder whether the factual information is accurate. If our local news station reports a horrific traffic accident, we don’t typically question whether the report was fabricated. Fortunately, the journalism industry has established codes of conduct and ethics (two example sets are listed below). While we may disagree with an opinion piece, or feel that the presentation of information by a particular news agency to be slanted left or right, most consumers have traditionally held a well-founded underlying assumption of truth regarding the factual information reported by news outlets.

But our source of news is changing. A Pew Research Center analysis concluded that 18% of US adults use social media as their primary source of news.[1] Many more of us rely on social media as a secondary source of news. Consciously or subconsciously, we tend to apply the same assumption of truth to the information that reaches us through social media, especially when the information falls in line with our own world view. This is a problem because with social media:

  • There are no norms or codes of ethics
  • The barriers to posting content are non-existent—Anyone can post
  • Content can be proliferated in social media without attribution. This means there are no risks or negative consequences for posting inaccurate or deliberately misleading information
  • Posts with higher emotional content (for example, posts that engender outrage) are more likely to be reposted

Social media has many benefits and uses, but it is a terrible medium for news. The “outrage culture” that has emerged in the US, is, I believe, a logical outcome of our misuse of social media.

What can we do about misinformation and outrage culture? I’m suggesting three simple steps that we can employ individually to move us in the direction of a more fact-based dialogue.

First—Stop yelling at each other. It doesn’t help.

Second—Verify. Take personal responsibility. Trust nothing on social media—nothing. No matter how “right” it sounds. Unless you can trace the factual information to a reliable source (typically an establish news outlet, or, even better, an original source) don’t repeat the story, and definitely don’t share or repost.

Third—Politely ask others to verify factual information. Don’t try to challenge beliefs or opinions—Those hardly ever change. If you see a post that you think may be inaccurate, politely ask for the source or for verification of the factual information.

You may need to patiently explain that social media content is not verification, and that you are looking for the original evidence that the social media post is based on. Often people are eager to “evangelize” you to their way of thinking. Put that to work.

You may also need to explain that first-hand accounts by individuals unknown to you and not representing reputable organizations are not to be relied upon. As an example, a social media post was forwarded to me by a Facebook friend. The post originated from Sally Smith (I’ve changed her name) and claims:

  • She was at the Trump rally on January 6, 2020
  • The rally was completely peaceful
  • The news media reports were completely false, and she knows because she was there
  • There were 2 million in attendance, and she’s attached her pictures to support her claim.

The problems with this type of social media post include:

  • We don’t know Sally Smith. She may not even exist.
  • Since she is an unknown source, nothing she has to say can be relied upon.
  • The pictures may be photoshopped, or may have been taken from a different event.[2]
  • She would have no way of knowing how many were in attendance, even if she were there. Estimating crowd size is extremely difficult. Most people tend to overestimate crowd size.

Here is an example of the type of interaction you might have with someone.

Your contact: Shares a social media post stating that Antifa infiltrated the Pro-Trump rally over alleged presidential election fraud, and it was Antifa who incited the violence that occurred at our national capitol. [3]

You: “That’s interesting—I hadn’t heard that. It’s surprising to me that the insurrection may have been caused by Antifa. Can you share the evidence you have that convinced you that this was the case? I’d like to understand this better.”

Your contact: Forwards five posts alleging the same claim.

You: “Thanks for forwarding the five social media posts. I noticed that none of them include the actual evidence that their claims were based on. One of them said that facial recognition software was used to identify Antifa members, but it doesn’t include any basis for making that claim or identify who completed this analysis. How is it that you know that what these posts are saying is true? Thanks for helping me out with this.”

And so on.

I think it would be naïve to expect that this would result in your contact suddenly realizing that they were forming opinions with no basis in fact. However, it does move the conversation in the right direction. What are the facts? How do you verify. No, you can’t rely on social media, no matter how “right” it sounds to you. We need to verify.

Worth a try. Let me know how it works.

Note: The examples, above, relate to right-leaning social media. However, this is a problem on both the left and the right. We all need to be diligent in not sharing or repeating stories from unreliable sources that have not been verified.

Appendices:

Five Core Principles of Journalism – Ethical Journalism Network[4]

1. Truth and Accuracy

Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. We should always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts we have and ensure that they have been checked. When we cannot corroborate information we should say so.

2. Independence

Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. We should declare to our editors – or the audience – any of our political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.

3. Fairness and Impartiality

Most stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.

4. Humanity

Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.

5. Accountability

A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable. When we commit errors, we must correct them and our expressions of regret must be sincere not cynical. We listen to the concerns of our audience. We may not change what readers write or say but we will always provide remedies when we are unfair.

Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics[5]

  • Seek truth and report it
  • Minimize harm
  • Act independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

[1] Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable | Pew Research Center (journalism.org)

[2]Fact check: Alleged pro-Trump rally images are from Cleveland, London (usatoday.com)

[3] Fact check: False claim of facial recognition of antifa at Capitol (usatoday.com)

[4] Five Principles of Ethical Journalism – Ethical Journalism Network

[5] SPJ Code of Ethics – Society of Professional Journalists

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