People Who Shrug and Share Lies on Facebook Are the Problem

The state of the universe.
June 9 2014 3:11 PM

Think Before You Share

That conspiracy video going around Facebook is a lie.

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Map.

Screenshot of Google Earth

In the time it took me to zoom down to lower Manhattan and look at the very first block north of Battery Park, there it was: that distinctive arch at the top of the building (circled in blue in the photo) and, behind it in the same block, the unmistakable vertical elements of the building (circled in red in the photo) behind which the wing “disappeared.” That is, it disappeared exactly the way you disappear when you step behind a tree: The building came between the camera and the airplane. The building is a good six blocks south of the tower—in front of it, not behind it. The single supposed fact on which the video based its 2 million–hit paranoid parade was provably wrong, in minutes.

A dope was wrong on the Internet, and I proved it. Whoopee, big deal. Except it kind of is a big deal. For one thing, it demonstrates that all this quackery we waste so much time on is not stupid—it’s wicked. The person who made this video is either incredibly ignorant about basic, school-kid geography and geometry or he didn’t care that his claim was false. He was just stirring up trouble by telling lies. I later found the original video from which the snippet was sliced. Most of the video makes it impossible to believe the buildings in question are behind the south tower as he claims. He was wicked—pure and simple.

And 2 million–plus people have wasted time because of it. This isn’t free speech—this is slander, making vicious claims about media and government that are demonstrably false. It’s a form of sabotage—a piece like this injures community, productivity, and trust. It’s unpatriotic, even seditious. But even that isn’t the main problem. We all know there are people out there, simultaneously stupid and wicked, who tell lies to further vicious agendas.

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The main problem is that people like my friend give a genial shrug and forward things like this. If that one sensible person had not shared the video, I’d probably be blissfully unaware of it. There’d be a dozen or so fewer hits on its page, and I and a few others would have gotten a little more work done.

My point is straightforward but urgent: This is the front line against viciousness and madness and anti-science and anti-reason. When people post slanderous, malevolent lies, if you forward them without censure, then you are abetting slanderous, malevolent lies. Forget that line on so many people’s Twitter page about retweets not constituting endorsement. Sorry, wrong. If you share something on any social medium, you’re saying, overtly, that you approve of it being shared. That you think it’s worth people’s time. That its point is either valid or worthy of consideration.

We need to adopt a new ethic. The entire point of the Internet is that anything can be put out there, without research or editing or fact-checking. That means every one of us is responsible for fact-checking our feeds, and crying foul when we see a foul. You share it, you stand behind it. Seeing something vaguely worth wondering about (if you don’t think about it too hard), then pressing share, is a losing strategy. You’re not allowed to turn off your judgment, even for a second. You’re not allowed to shrug and say, “Who knows?” and let someone else worry about it. That’s how we got into this mess.

So think—and above all check—before you share. If it’s a lie, by perpetuating it you claim at least a portion of the responsibility. Think about it. We don’t have 2 million hits a week to spare.

Scott Huler has written six books of nonfiction; his most recent is On the Grid. He contributes to Plugged In at Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter.