Cultivating skepticism

01/01/2014

I’m disappointed in myself.

I posted two stories on Facebook in the last week that turned out to be untrue, and were debunked in the comments (with Snopes articles, no less). I can typically spot misinformation propagating through my news feed from a mile away, but I suppose my skills of detection were taking an extended holiday vacation. Anyway, it got me to thinking about the skepticism required by participants in this crazy online world that we live in, and the role it plays in our day to day lives.

I’ve been wasting time on the Internet for all of my adult life, which means that I’ve got a solid handle on how to categorize the mass of information that reaches me every day. And something that seems to persist regardless of the social network (or medium) of the day is the irresistibly share-able story, full of misinformation, that spreads like wildfire — I’m sure we all remember the “Bill Gates Is Sharing His Fortune!” emails that our relatives dutifully passed along.

Cultivating skepticism is important because 1) it keeps misinformation from spreading and disrupts the clarity of the signal, and 2) it trains others to be more informed digital citizens when we tactfully help others learn when they’re on the wrong side of the equation. [I’ve long since resorted to messaging people privately if there’s a particularly egregious tale being shared, I don’t know anyone who enjoys being corrected in front of others.]

Doing research is as easy as running a quick Google search for a few key terms from your story (if not the title of the post, which can often be found verbatim on a post debunking the story), so there’s no excuse for the enlightened among us to do some research.

Misinformation is everywhere and doesn’t just enter our consciousness through the Internet, though. I actually can’t think of a single medium (television, radio…) that’s not chock full of stories that are embellished at best and outright lies at worst. And instead of trying to develop a subject matter expertise on the topics to which we’re exposed (impossible), I think it might only be necessary to think critically about human nature.

One universal truth is that everyone wants to feel important and like their life has meaning and impact. Some might accomplish this through writing important books and creating art that spreads, and others might take the bargain basement route an simply try to engineer a fictitious story that makes its way into our relatives’ inboxes.

I don’t have a rule of thumb that I follow about this, but I think a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied before blindly sharing stories that are too good to be true, stories that makes us feel good, stories that have a strong political bias for or against the current President, and unverifiable stories that reveal some juicy tidbit about a celebrity’s personal life.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have to delete the post I shared about Bradgelina’s marriage…