What do we think we know because of the stories we’ve been told?
This question is central to much of my work with global education and international collaborations. Consider its import: How many times have you read a meme or a list or a claim on Facebook and said to yourself, “Wow, I didn’t know that; that’s awful/shameful/crazy–I need to share this.” How many of those pieces started with the words “The mainstream/lamestream/libtard/faux-news/other-pejorative-adjective media refuses to print this story….”? How many started with the phrase “If this is actually true, this is terrible….”
How many times, before you shared the claim, did you do a little bit of research to find out if the story actually IS true…to learn where it originated… to check and see if the (insert snarky adjective here) media really refused to cover it?
Most of us are guilty, from time to time, of blindly believing an official-looking statement that’s been shared, sometimes with a confidence-inspiring photo to go with it, on Facebook. Because of this, most of us are guilty, from time to time, of spreading false narratives that were concocted by various parties for very specific reasons: to manipulate public opinion, to vilify a person or group, to drum up undeserved sympathy for a person or group, to sway people to one political side or the other…the list of reasons goes on.
We’ve learned this past year that some of these spurious stories have been crafted by bots, created by the Russian government and perhaps other hostile parties, who are seeking to undermine our democratic process. (And yes, this is a fact, not a shaky Facebook claim: here’s the NY Times article in today’s paper that discusses the situation.) These social media statements are part of “influence operations,” the Times reports, that seek to sow discord, to divide our nation along deep ideological lines. When we blindly believe them and share them, we are, in effect, aiding the parties that create them. We’re helping to spread the discord. We’re blaming each other, yelling in capital letters, calling each other horrible names, over manipulative–or outright false–Facebook memes planted by people who want to wreck us.
This same share-without-fact-checking dynamic is also at play when we encounter the narratives that surround other cultures and countries–and when people around the world encounter the narratives that purport to define the United States. We see memes and claims on Facebook that assure us of the evil intentions of various migrants. People in other countries see memes and claims that portray us as ignorant, boorish, and belligerent.
These spurious claims play on our fears: we all fear suffering; we all fear for our loved ones; we all fear that we won’t be able to live our lives as we choose to live them. The narratives that we absorb, whether from social media, pop culture, mainstream media, our government, or other governments, so often feed our fears, increase our suspicion–or even hatred–of the Other, who, we are convinced, has it in for us. And remember, sometimes the Other is us–and people are convinced we have it in for them.
So how do we challenge these spurious claims, these stories that take off like wild horses over the hills once they’re posted to social media and the fearful, the outraged, the slightly gullible instantly believe and start spreading them?
Well. This week, I came upon a great tool for thinking about the stories we’re presented with. It’s called the Primary Source Analysis Tool and it’s from the Library of Congress; you can access it for free here on their site. The tool lets you choose the format of the primary source you want to analyze–you choose from Manuscripts, Photographs and Prints, Political Cartoons, or a number of other categories, including “Any Format.” Then you answer several questions about the source. For example, in the “Observe” category, depending on the format you’ve chosen, you might see “What do you notice that you can’t explain?” In the “Reflect” category, you might ask yourself “Why do you think somebody made this?” and “Who do you think was the audience for this item?”
These are simple questions that nevertheless encourage us to think a little more deeply about what we’re reading and whether we should accept it as fact and pass it on. If you’re a teacher, this is also a great tool to introduce your students to as they weigh the reliability of the primary sources they intend to use in their papers and discussions.
But even before you use the tool, try this: when you read a claim on Facebook that seems just too good or terrible to be true, Google it. Type in a key phrase from the claim and see what comes up. Often you’ll immediately find the claim debunked, either on the Snopes fact-checking site or in an article from a reputable publication. Ten seconds of Googling can enlighten you as to the real origin–and the real purpose–of a meme or a fantastic claim. It can also save you from the embarrassment of having someone else point out that you’re sharing a false story.
Strive to share the truth. Strive to LEARN the truth. Let’s not be enablers to the ones who would like to divide us. Let’s not engage in a social media shouting match over claims that aren’t true to begin with. As I used to tell my college students, good manners and common sense will save the world.