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Searching for truth in social media

A popular social media page for car enthusiasts recently crashed and burned for revealing the identity of a suspect of a crime – which later turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The unfortunate victim of the gaffe got his reputation shredded within hours, and even received threats against him and his family. Later, the car magazine uploaded a single post sharing that the owner of the misidentified car stepped forward to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to clear his name, but stopped short of owning up to its own error and irresponsibility in its post. And while the editor of the car magazine posted on his own social media account that the blunder was his fault, the apology came too late. Damage, as is often in cases like this, has already been made.

 /2016.mb.com.ph

/2016.mb.com.ph

Years ago, a horrifyingly similar case of irresponsible posting put several individuals in danger. In the course of doing his job, a journalist reported that someone finally won the biggest prize in the history of Philippine lotto (the reporter didn’t mention the name of the winner). A famous personality and self-proclaimed ‘eventologist’ – not bothering to think that the identity of lotto winners are not named publicly due to the danger this might bring to the winner – thought that the lotto winner was the reporter himself, and congratulated him by name on Twitter. The inaccurate post then went viral, inducing the reporter to fear for his and his family’s safety.

The inclination to jump to conclusions and upload unverified posts is not limited to Filipinos. In the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, authorities were forced to reveal details of the investigation before they were ready to prevent people from getting hurt due to the social media ‘witch hunts’. Time and again, we prove the old adage: a Lie can travel around the world even before the Truth can put on its pants.

Even in cases where there is no element of danger (like celebrity death hoaxes), it is critical that we practice good sense whenever we see news/announcements in social media. Would you be a mindless sheep that just consumes anything he reads or would you be a judicious gatekeeper of information in your own circle? If you want to be a discerning social media practitioner, here are some tips that might be useful for you:

1. CONSIDER THE SOURCE

The most basic thing to consider is the source of your information. Is it a joke or parody site? Perhaps they feature ‘enhanced news’? If you’re reading a post by a private individual, is she an expert or privy to insider information on the subject she’s opining about? This is not about being snobbish, this is about perspicacity. Just as you’re not inclined to gamble away your lifesavings based on the financial advice of your barber, it is equally important to be discerning in who you read.

In this age of ‘citizen journalism’, anyone can post about anything. And while this empowers people to have their own voice, not everyone has the training, experience, and acumen to decide on what should appear on a news story. Not everyone who submits a report is a journalist, and not every article you can read is a story you should take as gospel truth.

2. SHOOT FOR DOUBLE

Any news organization worth its salt would require double confirmation on anything they publish. As shrewd readers, we should likewise be as exacting. Can you find the story from at least two trustworthy sources? Unless a news report screams that what they have is an exclusive, you should be able to find a similar story from their competitors. If your favorite site is the only one with the story, hold off before sharing it on your wall. Legit news would likely be published by multiple agencies.

Aside from considering the number of sites that carry the news, you should also dig a little deeper in the content of the article. Is the story based on one source alone? Can the facts be validated from other sources? If the whole proposition of the article you’re reading is based from only one source – be more cautious. In this age of misinformation, double confirmation is a trusty shield.

3. READ ACTIVELY

Just because something was published online does not mean it is automatically true. People have their own agenda, and decoding the writer’s goals is just as relevant as the facts he mentioned in the article you’ve read. And even if the writer was shooting for accuracy and fairness, mistakes happen and even the largest media organizations have needed to issue retractions.

Are the figures mentioned in what you’re reading plausible? Are the conclusions being drawn logical? Is there something vital not being said in the post? Don’t just consume whatever you click on. Read critically and exercise good judgement. Making active reading a habit will not just make you wiser in picking what is believable in the Internet, it could also be a valuable skill in your career – no matter the industry.

4. LIMIT THE BIAS

Everyone has a bias; there’s no such thing as a completely objective piece. Just because an article includes facts, figures, and quotes doesn’t automatically mean it’s legit. As someone who has worked in public relations, media, and corporate communications, let me tell you – the same facts, figures, and quotes can be easily used to construct an altogether different story.

Even if you agree with a writer’s bias, the fact that you could spot it should make you wary of believing what you’re reading. If a site, for example, calls a person derogatory names (like calling our former President  ‘abnoy’), that’s an immediate red flag. After all, if they have no regard for professionalism (or common courtesy), why should they care for accuracy or ethics? Passion has its proper place – and it’s the bedroom. A news report should always be fair, professional, and mature. The personal opinion of the writer should always be kept at a minimum.

5. STOP AND THINK

Clearly, what we read and what we share has an effect on how misinformation and propaganda can spread on social media. If we’re not stringent in the things we take in, we’re bound to regurgitate the same trash on our own wall.

So before you hit that ‘Share’ button, you owe it to yourself to stop and think. Are you absolutely sure sharing the name of a suspect is a good idea? Because if it turns out you’re wrong, you just helped harm an innocent individual. Do you believe a post because the facts support it, or because you agree with the bias of the writer? Is that link you’re about to repost from an organization that has proven its competence and trustworthiness through the years or are you taking the word of some fly-by-night website with an obvious axe to grind? If you’re not 100% sure, then hold off from sharing it. The Internet is already drowning with misinformation and questionable content – don’t make the mountain of trash bigger by contributing to it.

The hardest part in being a critical social media user is applying sound analysis to posts and articles that we agree with. But if we hate being treated as fools, then we should always scrutinize everything we come across – even those that we like.

Help stop the lies. #BeFullyInformed and be more discerning in the things you read.