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| Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In the aftermath of last week’s presidential election, social media has been abuzz with all sorts of information. Spirited assaults on and defenses of various political ideologies have saturated Facebook and Twitter like never before. And all of that is great; the free flow and exchange of information is essential to a free society. The only problem is that all information flows freely, whether true or false. Further, since fiction is not required to stick to the truth, it can be as salacious and viral as its creator wishes it to be. The result is that many popular stories traveling through “the cyber” are flat-out falsehoods.

Just to sample some of the differentially-factual Internet flotsam, let’s look at two pieces of viral content describing reactions to the election’s outcome. One viral video released shortly after the election shows several African-American men pulling a white man from his car and beating him before stealing his vehicle, while an off-camera voice shouts “You voted Trump!” Across the aisle, a Tweet was released alleging that the Ku Klux Klan was spotted celebrating on a bridge in Mebane, North Carolina. Both were shared across multiple media thousands of times within hours.

As it turned out, neither of these cases were what they appeared at first glance. Chicago police have stated the carjacking incident was precipitated by a traffic incident, not a political difference. While the bystander effect is certainly horrifying, the video is hardly evidence of an anti-Trump hate crime. Meanwhile, the persons depicted in the Mebane tweet were Trump supporters but were not affiliated with the Klan. The Klan does intend to hold a victory parade (or “klavalkade” in their idiotic lingo) in North Carolina in early December, but that meeting is separate from the incident that was tweeted out.

What made both of these pseudofacts zip halfway around the world before the truth could get its pants on? Simple: both neatly encapsulated the pre-existing assumptions of their target audience. It’s much easier to accept information that agrees with your worldview (though studies show that contradictory information only strengthens one’s beliefs). There’s no need to critically reason or question assumptions when a story like one of the above lands on your news feed. The absence of the second step in “trust, but verify” means that a Netizen can just read, assume and post without interrupting the flow of their browsing.

Enough talk about what’s wrong with the Internet — time to talk about what’s right. The Silicon Revolution has spawned a variety of fact-checking services designed to hold Internet culture accountable for its distortions. Snopes focuses on urban legends and chain emails, Politifact has won a Pulitzer for catching Beltway residents with their “Pants on Fire!”, and FactCheck has turned up in multiple Presidential elections to unpack candidates’ claims. Additionally, it’s harder and harder for politicians to bury their records. When Mike Pence says something like “smoking doesn’t kill,” online archives mean he has to own it forever and can’t memory-hole it away as he might have done last century.

Even when the various professional fact-checkers haven’t yet responded to a particular claim, it’s often easy to investigate yourself. Never be satisfied with a Facebook post’s caption or a 140-character assertion; click through to the source. Then click to that site’s source, and so on till you reach the raw information. (While you’re doing this, keep in mind that if you wouldn’t hire a site’s web designer, you shouldn’t trust its journalists.) Investigating a spurious link can uncover anything from unsourced blog ranting to an Onion article; it usually only takes ten seconds or so and can save you a lot of embarrassment.

A deep and abiding commitment to fact-checking will become extremely important in the next few years. This election cycle has spawned stories you couldn’t make up if you tried. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the new administration will likely be as reality-impaired as its campaign was. Unless you want to spend the next four years purchasing various pieces of New York’s transportation infrastructure, critically-analyzing the various stories that turn up in your news feed will be an essential skill.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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