How To Deal With All The Crap On Social Media

Image: Twitter / Gizmodo

Social media is a firehose of crap, because it's a firehose of everything. Essential oils cure all diseases! Sharks are swimming on Houston's freeways! OK, not really. Here's why we see so much garbage on social media and what to do about it.

Why There's So Much Crap Out There

You see this stuff because someone shared it. That means, to get traction, a lie has to be believable. Not one-hundred-per cent trustworthy, but close enough that you'll believe it for the two seconds it takes to read the headline, think "oh, wow" and click the share or retweet button.

We're inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them.

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Now, you might not trust all your friends. Geez, Jen is always talking about toxic GMOs in everything, you think, and that might make it easier to scroll past her 19th link about how Monsanto is poisoning children. But what if you see the same story from another friend, one who's a little less out-there? And from a third? The headline hasn't gotten any more true, but now you're starting to wonder if maybe there is something to it.

In fact, a Yale study showed that we're more likely to believe a fake headline if we've seen it before. And computer modelling shows that a good way to help a bad idea spread is to get a small group of people to believe in it, so they start sharing with their friends.

Think of that group as the spark that ignites a wildfire. Even if the fire doesn't catch at first, that small group keeps the bullshit burning.

Social media crap can start organically, as a group of people find each other and discuss their beliefs. But it can also be propagated by targeted networks of bots and trolls, by marketing campaigns that target ads to you across platforms and by a media ecosystem where every publication needs the clicks from a hot topic whether it's an important thing to talk about or not.

What You Can Do

Know that your friends trust you. At least a little bit. If you share a link or an idea, you're giving it a subtle endorsement. (Yes, even if you have "RTs are not endorsements" in your bio.) You're also adding to the number of times a person sees that headline or idea, which means you're adding to its power.

So, evaluate before you share. Yes, I know, you don't have time to dig into every suspicious-looking tweet. But here are some ways to spot crap that will take you less than a minute:

  • Check the date. Are you sharing something you think is relevant to today's news, but it's actually from last year's version of the same scandal? If it's old but still worth sharing, make sure to say so.
  • Look for sources. If there are facts, or things that claim to be facts, see where they come from. If it's about a study, is there a link to the scientific paper? If it's about a law, does the story get specific about what the law says and ask a legal expert how it would be interpreted or enforced?

  • Check it out. Check with the place that would be able to confirm the fact if it were true. If there's an epidemic, the CDC should have a statement. If planes are underwater at the Miami airport, the Miami airport would say so, or at the very least Miami news outlets would be covering it. And those news stories would have a current date and appropriate sources -- see how this all works together?
  • Reverse image search. It's hard to check facts on a photo, but you can easily find out if the photo itself is an old one. Right-click it and check it out.

These tips won't protect you from everything, but they will stop at least some of the crap in its tracks. And then you've helped make the world a less crappy place! Think of this as the digital equivalent of picking up rubbish on a hike.


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