Monday, December 27, 2010

Sheeple and the Hoax

One of the greatest things about Social Networking, (Facebook) is the ability to spread a message quickly through the network. Even TV has to struggle to keep up with the speed of this amazing conglomeration of friends, fans, family and assorted hangers-on. Raising awareness, raising money, and simply raising spirits are all easily accomplished with the amazing thing that is Facebook. It is a powerful tool, made even more powerful by the very people who use it.

Power comes with a certain amount of responsibility. The people behind Facebook do their part trying to keep the users safe from the Loonies out there in the cybersphere trying to cause problems. Mischief Makers, and hackers, those that would create malicious viruses, and those who would steal our data and identities. Yet there is another responsibility that we can't depend on anyone but ourselves to exercise, and we must get better at wielding this responsibility.

The reason that we can spread a message so quickly is because we have easily grasped the "copy & paste" method of status updates. In many cases this has been a boon, spreading Amber Alerts across the world in a matter of hours. Getting out the message that Dragons are dangerous, (or that they like you with ketchup!) thanking our mothers and step-mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and every other family member that we want to butter up. We can raise awareness of anything and everything that we think needs the awareness of raised. Sometimes we get carried away and forget that not everything we read is the truth, and before we know it we have become part of a problem rather than a cure.

There are far too many people who get their kicks by starting and spreading misinformation and trying to scare society in general, and far too often they do it so sneakily that nobody bothers to check the facts. The facts are the biggest thing that most people forget. They can read a post that includes the words "on the news" or "from a reliable source" and never bother to check for themselves whether something is true or just some knucklehead trying to start a panic. When we are sitting at our computers we literally have the WORLD at our fingertips., Facebook security, and at least a dozen other websites specialize in finding the facts of any crazy "news" story that crops up online and spreads like wildfire because people copy & paste without ever looking for backing facts. No matter how outlandish something seems, if people read the words that their friends post and "saw on the news", they will copy & paste into their own status with all urgency and never look back. They feel that they have done a great service to society and never bother to see if any of it is true. Sometimes it's harmless, but other times, it throws a giant monkey wrench into something that was going so well, and doing some good.

The best example of this happened in the first weeks of December. According to a story on ABC News a group of friends in Greece ( the Mediterranean country not the town or city) decided that it would be fun to try and subvert their Facebook profiles and replace their usual pics with cartoon characters. This morphed into something with people trying to raise awareness of child abuse. So by putting a cartoon character in your profile picture, and copying and pasting the status one would be "joining" the cause. Even for those who did no more than read the status updates and see why suddenly, all of their friends had cartoon profiles, there was a little good being done. In the follow-up stories there was a notable spike in donations to child welfare causes over the second week of December, over and above the normal rise associated with the holiday season. Cut to the second Monday of December and suddenly there appears in the statuses the message that The cartoon characters are "a ploy by pedophiles" to snare children with their friend requests. It was "on the news" and "seen on TV". But it was nothing of the sort.

In fact what DID make the news was that the campaign had actually had the effect it had intended, raised awareness of child abuse and neglect. As cited above there was a spike in charitable donations world wide towards child welfare charities, yet all it took to dry this thing up, was the mere mention that it was a ploy by pedophiles. Within hours, in fact probably 5 times faster than the original "Change to a cartoon" Status, there came the wave after wave of the warning, all caps and screaming that it was "ploy by pedophiles". The hoaxsters know the buttons to push. In a matter of a day, all the good that was done in two weekends of cartoon characters was washed away.

18 hours after I first saw the "pedophile" update, I finally found the debunking of the hoax on Snopes. But it was too late, too many people had already seen the hoax and jumped on the band wagon, without ever doing their own research to verify the source of this "TV News Show" where this story supposedly broke. The Sheeple had fallen for the Hoax, again.

I can't blame people for being cautious, but what I do blame them for is being cautious in the wrong way. These days of 24 hour news channels have made people live in fear. What once upon a time would have been a regional story at best, lost hikers, parental kidnap, high speed pursuit, or anything that might make the local TV news is now blasted nationwide in a matter of minutes, especially on a slow national news day. Every story gets it's own graphic and trumpeting lead in. Teasers into the commercials, and shots from every angle, inside and out, up and down. Society has become the lookouts for "the next big story." Cellphone video makes the 6 o'clock news and gets picked up by CNN and MSNBC and FOX News. The stories are picked apart and analyzed by any expert who wants to make a few bucks and a little screen time. We are NOT the better for it. We panic at the slightest provocation, looking for a bogeyman behind every bush, and if we can do our part we feel that we have done right.

But our part is to be responsible with the power that we have, taking a few minutes to look for a few facts to be sure that we are sharing the truth with our friends and family. THAT is doing Right.

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