Is satirical “news” making us stupid? (UPDATED)

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I’m a big fan of The Onion. And satire in general. But I’ve noticed an increasing trend lately: People mistaking satire for legitimate news. It used to be easy to tell when The Onion was the only player in the satire game — but the last few years have seen the satirical news market become increasingly saturated.

It doesn’t help that often the disclaimers (if they have any) are hidden away somewhere — or are so tongue-in-cheek that if you don’t realize the article is satirical, you may not realize the disclaimer is satirical too.

I’ve also noticed that this new brand of satire is far more subtle, at least in the beginning. Things start off plausibly before building to a crescendo of implausibility near the end. This can cause some problems.

Not too long ago the place I work conducted a study on the reading habits of people. The biggest takeaway was that people tend to read the first two or three paragraphs of something — then either skim the rest, jump to the end, or just stop reading.

Since much of this newer satire buries the big giveaways deeper in the story, many people seem to miss them — but post or share anyway, believing it is legitimate. From there other friends share it, also thinking it is legitimate since their friend posted it.

And from there the satire takes on an air of truthfulness — with people using the “information” from such stories in conversations and debates. Once something is out of the box, it’s very hard to keep it from spreading — let alone put it back in. Snopes has quite a list of things that have needed debunking and have origins in satirical news articles.

So remember, search high and low for a disclaimer (they can usually be found at the bottom of the page or “about us” section) — or just Google before you post up that “shocking” “news” story. And make sure to point out such falsities to others when you see them posted. Help our collective consciousness stay sharp!

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson

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EDIT: After posting this originally, I received some feedback from people concerning satire. The main theme being “(satire) promotes critical thinking — which is something we need.”

And honestly, I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the reasons I love satire. It’s (usually) smart stuff. The problem, as pointed out by another reader, is “not so much that satirical news is making us stupid, as that as a society we have become so gullible and unwilling to ‘fact check’ (or even read the entire article in the first place, as you pointed out) that we don’t even start to think critically in the first place.”

So the question is: What’s the best way to keep people from being so gullible and to get them thinking critically?

Google before you post

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I generally believe that someone’s Twitter or Facebook wall should be whatever they want it to be. But posts dealing in misinformation are problematic. They can lead people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make (sometimes dangerous ones), divert time and resources from government agencies, and unfairly malign people and organizations.

Often these posts have been re-shared hundreds of times. Often they’re political, but sometimes they deal with science, major companies, religion, or other issues. Generally they all carry the same underlying emotions — fear, anger, or worry.

Here are a few quick examples of such posts, along with examples of how to use Google to find the truth.

Facebook Privacy Notice

This one crops up every few months. A post claiming that if you share it on your wall, it keeps Facebook from owning/using the content you post. It often invokes uniform commercial code (UCC) 1-103 1-308.

Search: “Facebook Privacy Notice”+”snopes” OR “UCC 1-103 1-308″+”snopes”

Result: It’s a hoax. When you sign up for Facebook and agree to the terms and conditions, you give Facebook the authority to use any content you post, and once you agree to that, there’s nothing you can do.

Missing children

This is another one that gets a lot of play on Facebook and Twitter. It will reference a lost child, complete with their name, and often direct you to call a police station in the child’s home state if you spot the child. These hoaxes can be particularly time-consuming for the agencies listed in the hoax because they have to deal with constant calls about the “child” — diverting them from real cases that need their attention.

Search: “(child’s name)”+”missing” (add “snopes” if you want, usually it’s not necessary). If I can’t find any information about the child through that, I will also search for the agency listed in the post and see if the numbers match up. If they do, I will often give a quick call and ask if the case posted is legit.

Result: 9 times out of 10 the “missing child” either is completely fabricated or has been found. Every now and then though, the post proves to be legit (and if that’s the case I always share it).

Political posts

These are too numerous to count. But they usually defame a politician or purport that a piece of legislation will have disastrous effects.

Search: “(person)”+”(action committed)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” OR “(legislation)”+”(disastrous effect)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” — I particularly suggest Snopes or Politifact because they tend to be unbiased. When it comes to politics, I don’t trust other sites to have the commitment to pure fact that these sites have shown themselves to have.

Result: 9 times out of 10, these are either outright lies or half-truths. It’s good to get the whole story before passing judgement.

Evil companies

Much like the political posts, these tend to defame a company, corporation, or CEO.

Search: “(person/organization/company)”+”(action committed)” — sometimes I will add “Snopes” too, if I’m unsatisfied with the results my original search gets.

Results: This one is usually more of a mixed bag. Oftentimes there seems to be more half-truths or truths than outright lies, but still, it’s always good to get the full story.

Unwitting victims

The Internet is full of lies — some harmless, some not. Don’t risk it and be a victim, and don’t make your friends unwitting victims either. Always look into an issue or story before you share it.

Censorship: Corroding the “marketplace of ideas” and silencing truth

With the recent revelation that Facebook is censoring not only breastfeeding photos, but also political activists, I wanted to take a moment to discuss censorship — especially as it pertains to social media and business-consumer relations.

I think it’s fine to have a “curse filter” to help keep dialogue on your site family friendly, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I’ve mentioned before that I only delete comments if they’re potentially libelous, and there’s an important reason for that.

Filtering anything beyond that is liable to make people suspicious of an agenda or ulterior motive (which can make you a target for radicalized individuals or groups). It also dampens the “marketplace of ideas” — the idea that the more people you have engaged in a conversation, and the more viewpoints you have at the table, the more likely the truth will emerge. This is especially important to me.

Granted, it’s a very double-edged sword. In order to get the truest results, even the worst ideas must be able to be represented. But I’ve noticed these ideas often get filtered out quickly. The longer a conversation goes on, the more I see people reach across the aisle and come to some consensus. And even when they don’t, they still bring a wealth of information to the table for others to pore over and come to their own conclusions as well.

The end result, I believe, is that everyone is better informed than they were before. And that is one of the fundamental building block to progress. Informed people make better thinkers and doers. In a capitalist democracy, that is especially important. Voting, what you consume, health, environmental quality… so many things depend on being an informed person.

But what about when people aim negative things at you (or your organization)?

The first thing I do is take any negative feedback (or questions) to the people they are aimed at. I talk with them about it and try to get their side of the story. Often, they have a good explanation and it will satisfy a disgruntled customer/critic.

Sometimes there isn’t a good explanation and the person just plain screwed up. For that, an apology is in order. An apology should always be sincere, and it’s best to try and explain what happened as best you can and assure the complainant that it won’t happen again. I always thank the complainants for being vocal about their concern as well, because even negative feedback is a good lesson for everyone.

If that isn’t good enough for them and they keep egging you on, you have to take the high road. You can reiterate that you’ve done all you can, and steps have been taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and you are sorry to hear they aren’t satisfied — but that’s all you can do. At no point should you respond disrespectfully, and at no point should you delete their comment or your conversation — that’s a great way to dig yourself a hole.

After all, censoring others can also weaken your own ideas and lower your credibility. As a colleague once said to me, “How do you expect to forward a proposition (or yourself), if you have to silence opposing points of view?”

(Thanks to manachron for linking me the article from The Conversation.)

SOUND OFF: What do you think about censorship of comments — is it necessary?

The newsroom agenda and silencing commenters

The news media often gets a bad rap. Sometimes doubly so on their internet forums and social media outlets. While I can’t speak for large TV and internet news conglomerations, I can tell you a couple things about your average city newsroom.

The agenda

The agenda of your typical newsroom is simple: News. Reporters, by and large, are invested in giving as accurate a report of a story from all sides as possible. That doesn’t stop people from seeing into a story what they want though. I’ve seen multiple occasions where we will get calls on the same story from opposing factions saying that the story was clearly favoring the other side — which typically means we’re doing our job pretty well.

Also: It may surprise some, but a newsroom is diverse — with Christians, Atheists, liberals and conservatives all working side by side.

Silencing commenters

I’ve been accused, on a few occasions, of preventing people from posting comments or deleting them. On every one of those occasions, that has not been the case.

It’s an exceptionally rare case for a comment to be deleted (usually due to a liability concern and only after discussing the comment with someone else). More often than not, your comment was posted but you’re experiencing a delay or cookie issue. If you’re patient your comment will show up, usually within 5 to 15 minutes. In cases where you can’t even post a comment, it’s likely an oversensitive spam filter or a glitch and a talk with the webmaster can resolve it.

On the rare occasion when I DO delete a comment, I make it a point to explain why to the commenter. It’s never cool to leave someone in the dark.

A healthy dose of criticism

All of this isn’t to say news organizations don’t make mistakes. And when people call us out on them, the last thing we want to do is silence them. First of all, criticism is good. It helps us improve and keeps us on our toes. Secondly, I’ve seen how people treat organizations that try to silence opposition or critique. Just as in real life, in the online world if you try to quiet someone they get louder than ever. I prefer the taste of humble pie.

SOUND OFF: Are you in social media, news, or public relations? How do you handle criticism and accusations?

3 things to avoid in online conversations

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In my line of work I’m constantly looking at what people are saying to each other. It’s one of the simultaneously enlightening and often aggravating things about my job. Whether or not people agree with what someone is saying, I’ve found that people are a lot more receptive to their idea when these three things are avoided.

Absolutes/extremes

Absolutes are absolutely aggravating. If you have to resort to an impossible, convoluted or extreme scenario to make a point, most commenters agree that you’re standing on thin ice. Quite simply, there will always be exceptions to the rule — but that doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s premise is bad.

The worst is when you get two commenters who do this in the same discussion. Their back-and-forth can quickly spiral outward and drown out the more reasonable dialogue going on.

Not citing your sources

“What’s your source?” “Who said that?” “Where did you get that statistic?”

Commenters will halt a conversation when someone throws out a statistic or the result of a study without including the link or source. Always make sure to provide attribution to your information. If you can’t, try to find it — usually a Google search will do. If you come up empty-handed, avoid sharing the information at all.

Speaking of sources, make sure it’s a good one. If the source could appear partisan, people will quickly discredit it. The best sources are neutral and impartial groups. If you don’t know the way a source leans on a particular topic, a look at the source’s homepage or Wikipedia entry will usually give you a good idea. If you know what sources your opponent trusts, try to find information to back up your point from that source.

Name-calling and personal attacks

This is the quickest way to either end a conversation or turn it into a shouting match. Simply put: don’t do it. Your debate is about the topic at hand, not your opponent.