Every once in a while, scientific researchers will labor long and hard to clinically demonstrate what we could pretty much find out for ourselves by just looking around.
Still, it’s nice to have real data to back up what we already gleaned from naked-eye observation.
Researchers at New York University and a French institution, the Universite’ Grenoble Alpes, analyzed Facebook between August of last year and January — approximately from the presidential campaigns to the Biden inauguration. They found that unreliable news sources got six times as many likes, shares and other interactions as information from trusted agencies like the World Health Organization or big TV news networks.
We all have our own ideas about which sites are on the looney left or ridiculous right, but the Washington Post last week cited Occupy Democrats and Breitbart as examples of extremes. The researchers said that misinformation was more common on the right edge of the political spectrum, but that finding could be tainted by the presumed liberalism of academia. You’d expect NYU to be shocked by bias on the right and, naturally, whether you trust CNN or the WHO is a judgment call, too.
But the math — six times as many shares and likes — is alarming when you consider that many people so much information from the internet. No wonder so many people think the government is trying to control us with mask mandates, or that violent thugs rioting at the U.S. Capitol were really patriots, or that public schools are pushing critical race theory.
Or that elections officials in a dozen or so states, who don’t know each other and who work under differing state laws, somehow conspired to rig the last presidential election — but not the races for Congress, governor or state legislatures.
Not too long ago, lunatic notions spread by word of mouth. Most were benign rumors, like the one about a magic pill that turned water into gasoline (only the oil companies kept buying up the patents to keep it off the market) or the thing about Proctor & Gamble’s moon-and-stars emblem being some kind of satanic symbol (the company won a $19 million civil suit against some people who’d spread that lie.) Before court judgments made tobacco companies pay for the damages they caused, cigarette companies spread the belief that “the jury is still out” on lung cancer and heart disease.
Now, thanks to the internet, that old saw about a lie getting halfway around the globe before the truth gets its boots on is a quaint notion. Rumors and lurid falsehood can spread farther, faster than ever — and the rebuttal rarely catches up. That’s because we tend to believe what we want to believe.
Remember the one about how Congress was about to slap a five-cent tax on every email message you send?
When I was covering the Florida Capitol, I used to get a couple calls and messages every week tipping me to some new proof that President Obama was a Muslim from Kenya. If they weren’t too unhinged, I’d ask these tipsters how I could verify such a huge story and, invariably, they’d say, “Well, it’s all over the internet!”
Oh, well, if somebody typed it on a keyboard, it must be true. And if you see it frequently enough, how can it be false?
It’s not Facebook’s fault. It employs fact-screeners and will take down, haphazardly, malicious misinformation — mostly. Too much remains, and that’s why we need to be our own fact checkers.
Just don’t get your news or other information off the internet. Everything, including what you’re reading now, is there because someone, somewhere wants you to think one way or another about a person, issue or event. Most of it is OK — this column and stories in this paper exist because the folks at Gannett hire people to write news and opinion — but a lot of what you see in social media comes from people with a financial, political or personal interest in helping you draw some conclusion.
It’s not covert mind control. It’s just PR, of a sort, and you don’t know who posts it.
Right, left, or middle of the road, there are plenty of reliable, established information sources like newspapers, TV, radio and, yes, internet sites. We should be skeptical of all of them, but especially wary of sites we’ve never heard of and stuff that reinforces what we already want to believe.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat Capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at email@example.com
Want more news coverage? If you’re already a subscriber, thank you! If not, please subscribe using the link at the top of the page and help keep the news you care about coming.