I used to spend every morning reading/skimming thousands of social media posts about the Red Cross. This activity taught me a bunch of lessons about being an active and responsible consumer and sharer of social media content.
Below are some lessons I’ve learned about how we might approach our engagement in the global social media community, and a draft pledge for consuming and sharing news. I’d love your input on the pledge and this approach. Is there a better way to look at the fake news issue? Are there more things we can do?
I’m in the “that way there be dragons” camp when it comes to imagining Facebook or Google as arbiters of truth. I think we can pressure tech platforms to design algorithms that expand our individual viewpoints rather than create echo chambers, and also continue to create “safe space” among people who share interests and viewpoints. These are not mutually exclusive and most all of us need both. I don't think it's a great idea to give platforms the power to determine what is true.
I know it’s an uphill battle, but how we handle social media content just might be up to all of us. We determine how we respond, react, and work together on social media platforms and as a society.
What I accidentally learned while reading millions of social media posts
about the Red Cross.
How to ruthlessly question everything I read.
I went to law school and overall had a spoiled person’s educational journey, but nothing honed my critical thinking skills quite like being surrounded by the social web for my career.
There is a caveman-like quality to our brain’s response to social media posts. I used to fall victim to it all the time, but after I got some experience being wrong, I learned to view those strong reactions as a trigger to START asking questions rather than to publicly share and respond based on my gut reaction.
How to spot a troll.
I take a naive approach to this one. I always give negative posters the benefit of the doubt because I believe in the old saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Therefore, if someone takes time out of their day to post something negative, that means they care about the issue. I would engage with the person to hear them out, to ask them how they would handle the decision or situation differently, and to offer to work with them to carve a path to creating a better solution.
If the negative poster doesn’t engage in this approach, they are a troll and I have learned to ignore them.
How to spot a lie.
Sure, when there are active tornado warnings it’s tempting to share that photo of a menacing and swirling tornado coming down the highway. Sure, when a superstorm is landing on New York City it’s tempting to believe and share that sharks are swimming on the flooded floor of the stock exchange. I’ve learned that I have to take a beat and check whether those photos are (1) real and (2) about the situation that’s happening now.
The truth is a slowpoke and lies are fast little buggers. Now I know that if something I’m reading seems too good to be true in that it makes me feel super indignant, I need to take a beat and evaluate where it came from and who else has corroborated it.
How to spot clickbait
Disaster response is hard and messy and new every time. It can always be improved. Always. A reporter recently claimed that the org built just 6 homes in Haiti when it pledged to build many more. It’s a scintillating headline and urges most sensible people to feel outraged and indignant. If you look into the situation a bit more, you’ll learn that permanent homebuilding wasn’t politically possible, so the org pivoted to other impactful projects. Its crime was not swindling and lying, but in not being able to capture press attention when it had to change strategies.
This fact hasn’t stopped the story from flying around the web without context. I’ve learned to think about the motivations of the author and to consider other viewpoints than the one being presented in everything I read. It takes a little longer, just like the truth, but it’s worth it.
Everyone wants to feel part of something bigger than themselves
Viral social media content is the best example I’ve ever seen that we all just want to belong. It’s fun and rewarding for us to join in sharing content that reinforces our belonging to groups. This is generally fine, but we owe it to ourselves and our society to push ourselves to look beyond our own groups and viewpoints. We owe it to ourselves to tear down our walls of comfort rather than build them higher.
Out of these lessons, I have started this pledge for how we might all approach consuming and sharing news. I need help and feedback and more viewpoints included:
Pledge for Consuming and Sharing News
I pledge to be an active and responsible consumer and spreader of content.
To read the entire piece of content before I share or comment on it,
To pause and question when a piece of content reinforces or shocks my views,
To consider alternative points of view before I comment or share,
To know who the author and publisher of the content is,
To check whether the content has been validated by more than one source,
To push platform owners to expand our viewpoints rather than continually reinforce them,
To invite constructive disagreement and debate about ideas and actions,