Just because something we read on the internet isn’t classified as “news” doesn’t make it any less dangerous than fake stories that try to be passed off as real.
A few years ago, two images were making the rounds on the web. In fact, I bet you saw these images on your Facebook feed.
One image showed a picture of the crowd during the announcement of Pope Benedict’s election. As you can see, there only a few mobile devices in use.
The image below shows the crowd during Pope Francis’s election, eight years later. Notice the difference?
Someone put both of these images together to show how, in a few short years, the use of mobile devices to capture events went from practically non-existent to practically necessary.
And, indeed, the pictures do a great job of illustrating this point.
These pictures hit a chord with social media users, who shared them, perhaps ironically, with their social media communities to backhandedly admonish us for relying so much on technology (I guess).
Two separate events. One location. One message. Powerful.
Except there was one problem: The first image was taken at Pope John Paul II’s funeral procession, not the anointment of Pope Benedict. As the Washington Post puts it, the moods for these events could not have been more different, so it’s understandable that, perhaps, less people were inclined to use their devices, even if they brought them with them.
[Editor’s Note: In 2005, Facebook had yet to open to the public, Twitter wasn’t even an idea in Jack Dorsey’s head, and both Instagram founders were still matriculating at Stanford. So, to share these photos as proof that technology has boomed since ’05 sort of misses the point because even if we had devices back then capable of taking images as we do now, there was nowhere to post them. But that might be another blog post.]
Of course, nobody actually took the time to deem both images genuine because, well, what was the point of it? Who has time to fact-check what they post to someone through a medium as innocuous as Facebook? Who cares if the image is misleading if the message is solid.
We shared the image to show how quickly things can change in eight years, with the actual purpose of the event secondary. But in doing so, we set a dangerous precedent that haunts us to this day.
Most would argue that posting something like this, even if it’s false, is harmless becuase it still conveys the message we want to convey. But that’s how most terrible things start: with something harmless.
What started as teens in Macedonia trying to make a buck by writing and sharing fake news has gotten to the point now where a man walked into a restaurant in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago and fired a rifle because of something he read online.
This man believed the pizza place was a haven for a child abuse ring. The main point of the conspiracy theory, dubbed “Pizzagate”, is that high-level politicians are involved in secretive child abuse and trafficking ring.
The source for this theory? A single white supremacy Twitter account citing unnamed NYPD sources.
We have now entered a time in the course of human evolution where a single anonymous tweet causes a man to arm himself and try to get to the bottom of the case on his own, just in case it is true.
And just last week, conspiracy theorists have named other pizza parlors as participants in the cover-up, even though this is the most ridiculous conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard.
As we prepare to endure a Trump presidency that will come with its own set of challenges, we now take on the added responsibility of ensuring that the content we share on social media is accurate, to the best of our abilities.
We can no longer afford to post content now and ask questions later.
As we’ve seen with Pizzagate, there are very real (and very dangerous) repercussions attached to what we share with our friends on Facebook and Twitter. While it may not seem like a big deal to post without doing the proper research, there is always someone out there who is ready to take erroneous action.
If you want to know what you can do to help to ensure we don’t fall down a black hole of conspiracy fodder and untruths in a post-truth world, taking five minutes to do the proper research is a good place to start.