If you’re on Facebook, you’ve most likely seen it: stories or images about a controversial topic that stir up emotion in people, only to be proven false with a quick search from Snopes or Google.
If you’re anything like me (and I freely admit that this seems to take more effort than it’s worth), you put your librarian hat on and look for factual inaccuracies. Taking a quick scroll down my Facebook feed shows me just how information illiterate so many people are (or, at least many of my Facebook friends… yikes, does that say anything about me?!).
Just yesterday, a friend from college found an article originally posted on Reddit and shared it on Facebook. She is an extremely intelligent, educated woman, but given the topic the story, she was rightfully infuriated by the content and shared it on her Timeline. Understandably, many of her friends were equally upset and voiced their opinions. I, too, was shocked at the article, but after reading the story and evaluating the website, I saw a couple red flags.
Some things that caught my attention:
- The married couple (for the sake of argument, let’s say their last name is “Doe”) featured in the story were only referred to as “Mr. Doe” or “Mrs. Doe”—not a first name in sight for either adult.
- The website was plastered in ads. I mean COVERED! They weren’t even discreetly relevant to the stories, just cookie-based advertisements clogging up the website real estate.
- The name of the state where it all happened? Southern Carolina. Upon first read I assumed this was a spelling error, but saw it referenced as such a throughout the story. No city or town was ever mentioned.
There was a photograph of the parents included in the article, too. Feeling quite curious, I saved the image to my computer. The image name was “SadParents.jpg,” which also seemed peculiar. I used Google’s great “Search by Image” tool and found that, as expected, the image was a stock photo. There were dozens of other sites using the exact same image that were completely unrelated to the news article! This was my first time using the “Search by Image” feature in a practical sense, and it certainly proved useful.
I let my friend know that, to my suspicions, the story was a hoax. But what about people who share exaggerated, misquoted or blatantly false statements about politicians or activists, and those who see it and believe it? These posts stir up a lot of powerful feelings among all of us, myself included, but few think about the validity of the claims and simply accept it for what it is.
The Importance of Information Literacy
Yes, information literacy is imperative throughout one’s academic career. But what about in our day-to-day lives? Lest we forget the Martin Luther King, Jr. “quote” that spread like wildfire across the social networks after the death of Osama Bin Laden: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” Remember that? Remember when that wasn’t even said by MLK? I can’t imagine the same number of people who saw and were inspired by the misquote also saw the stories clarifying the error.
Granted, misinformation over a quote on Facebook is not nearly severe as, say, citing The Onion in a college research paper. Either way, both exhibit how important it is for all of us to take a moment and see if what we’re being told is true.
(Please note: This topic and title sprung to mind after reading a blog post by writer John Shanahan. The blog post is, err, passionately written. While he makes a valid argument, there is some foul language, so I won’t link to it from here. If you’d like to read his post, which also discusses other instances of misinformation on Facebook, shoot me a message and I’d be happy to pass it along.)