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.”