Farhad Manjoo: Did you hear that Newt Gingrich has pledged to build a colony on the moon and send all of America’s violent criminals there if he’s elected president?
Emily Yoffe: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.
Farhad: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Today’s question is from a listener who wonders whether he should correct the bad facts and blatant lies that his friends post to their Facebook pages. He writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, I’m an avid Facebooker, and I sometimes wonder how to handle factual errors that friends post to their pages. I’m not interested in getting into debates about political or religious opinions on Facebook, but often friends will post data about the size of the government or tax rates or theology that is just factually incorrect. On one hand, I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all or embarrass anyone. At the same time, it bothers me to just let these falsehoods stand, especially when I then see comments stacking up underneath saying ‘Good point’ and ‘That’s so true.’ My question is when is it appropriate to correct someone’s Facebook post? And when should I just roll my eyes and get back to my real life?”—Signed, You’ve Got It All Wrong.
So, Emily, what do you do when you see just completely wrong things on Facebook?
Emily: Well, first of all, I want to say I kind of like this moon incarceration idea, and I think Newt Gingrich should actually run with it.
As I’ve noted before, I am not an avid Facebooker, so I don’t really care what people are posting on Facebook. However, this letter writer is. I think there’s absolutely a way to do this without striking the tone of, “Oh, you’re all idiots” or “Oh, gosh, it’s my turn again to inform you of the truth.”
If there’s this discussion going on, just join it and say, “Look, I think you’ve got it wrong about how much the 1 percent does pay in taxes. Here’s a link from the IRS,” or whatever data place you find, “that says they actually contribute X amount.” Keep it factual. I think links really help. Then you’re not putting people down; you’re just contributing to the discussion.
Farhad: When I got this question, I thought of this cartoon on the Internet; this geeky cartoon called XKCD. They had this panel one time where the guy was sitting at his computer and his wife says, “Honey, come to bed,” and he says, “I can’t. Something important is going on. There’s someone wrong on the Internet!”
Emily: I wasn’t Slate, obviously.
Farhad: No, not Slate. Everything’s right on Slate. I agree with you that there’s a way to do it well. If you see an inaccuracy on Facebook, you can do it in a way that’s polite and that perhaps informs the discussion. But I think there’s just so much that’s wrong on the Internet that if you tried to do that, you would spend all your time doing it. I think you really have to pick your battles.
I think it depends on the context, who this person is. If he’s a good friend of yours and you know that he’s interested in reasoned political debate, you can add to the discussion. But if it’s someone whose mind you know won’t be changed by any kind of facts, I think you shouldn’t bother. I think there’s a lot of such people on the Internet, so in most cases, I would say don’t bother.
Emily: Well, if it’s truther/birther stuff, forget it, move on, you are sending yourself into a black hole there. And, if you have a lot of friends who are such people, hmm … that should give you some pause.
But this sounds more like actually reasonable discussions that are “Well, I heard that the Mormons actually believe that.” And if you know something, again, links are really helpful—links with some veracity behind them. You’re not striking a tone of putting people down. Just go ahead and say, “No, I don’t think that’s quite true. From what I read here, it’s this way.”
I totally agree with you, pick your spots. This is the larger meta-question of: what does being an avid Facebooker mean? You devote X hours a day to these kind of discussions among your friends, whereas if you were having lunch, you think, “Oh, thank goodness, it’s time to get back to the office.”
You don’t want to be the Internet monitoring device. But, if people are engaging in a discussion of something you do know something about or you see there’s an obvious distortion—again, not of the truther/birther kind.
Another place I think that could be helpful is Snopes, which is the site that confirms or knocks down urban myths. I think the Internet is perfect for urban myths. Linking to Snopes and saying, “No, this thing has been around for 15 years. It’s not true” is good.
Farhad: I’ve tried this before. I have several members of my family who send me, not even political, just weird urban legends by email. I’ve tried to respond sometimes with links from Snopes or somewhere else. I don’t think that I change their minds. I don’t think that I stop them from forwarding the next crazy thing that comes along. I might have wasted the 10 seconds that it took me to look that up on Google.
I think that, even there, you risk beating your head against the wall, especially if you notice this happening: If you see an inaccuracy and then you post some fact that proves it wrong, and then someone else comes in the discussion and chimes in and says all the facts in your link were wrong and tries to challenge you to a debate that way, I would say don’t engage because I think you’ll never win that kind of battle where people don’t even believe the links that you provide.
Emily: That’s where my advice to be a less avid Facebooker comes in.
Farhad: Yeah, but I think this problem is beyond Facebook. It happens on comment boards, like at Slate. It happens in email. It happens everywhere on the Internet.
Emily: Wait a minute. You’re telling me that 90 percent of people who go on tropical vacations don’t wake up to find stitches where one of their kidneys used to be?
Farhad: It happened to a friend of a friend of mine.
Emily: Right, yeah. No one comes home with both kidneys. We all know that. That’s absolutely true.
Farhad: I guess we agree here that we should be judicious. You should pick your battles here. I guess I’m even more reluctant to engage than you are.
Emily: OK. But I want to say one thing. It turns out it is true that President John Tyler, who was the 10th president in the United States, he was born at the end of the 1700s, his two grandsons are still alive. This is not made up. This is true. So if you see it on Facebook, you can believe that.
Farhad: I’ve heard that factoid—or fact.
Emily: It’s a fact, thank you. Drop the “toid.”
Farhad: I’ve heard that fact repeated so many times over the last few days on the Internet. Actually, David Plotz, our boss, mentioned it in their own podcast. It’s one of those things where now I just believe. Even though I haven’t independently checked it out or anything like that, I just believe it. That’s exactly the kind of information … I’m positive that’s correct, but I bet that over time it will morph into some other weird urban legend concerning another president or something like that. I think that process of us just believing and passing things on like that is part of the problem.
Emily: You know what? You’re right. Because when you hear something amazing, your instinctive reaction is, “No … that’s just another Internet baloney.” I did look it up because I didn’t believe it, and it is true as far as you can ascertain. But you’re right, we’re all so used to hearing so much garbage that when you do find an amazing real fact, you tend to discount it.
Emily: So, my bottom line, which I think is both of our bottom lines, is occasionally if you can pop in there and correct what is obviously a true misperception, you can do it without sounding like a know-it-all. But if you are an avid enough Facebooker that you think you’re going to correct all the misinformation, you better get another hobby.
Farhad: Yeah. Don’t ever attempt to correct everything that’s wrong on the Internet. You’ll get too old.
Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@Slate.com
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.