Across India a number of fatal lynchings have taken place over the past few months. The cause is misinformation spread with messages on Whatsapp. Pressure has now been mounting on Whatsapp and new initiatives have been started to educate high schoolers on being discerning when reading messages they receive.
Although we don’t see the same extreme reactions here in Australia, we still fall for our fair share of internet hoaxes. For example: “did you hear? Typing ‘Facebook Security’ shows your paid stalkers!?” is a more innocent example I remember from last year.
Some hoaxes are definitely harmless yet some have ended in tragic fatalities. How can we go further than just telling people to not be so gullible?
Are you being shocked by what you’re reading? That probably isn’t a bad thing - remember the HIV contaminated Pepsi hoax? That would have been terrible had it been real. That hoax quickly spread as many people shared the story, caught up in a mild panic. Therefore keep calm and think before you share!
Thinking - don’t be lazy
How should we do this thinking? Critical thought can be hard work and it can be inviting to take shortcuts. Beware of being lazy.
A simple and effective approach is to check the sources of what is being claimed. If you can’t verify it then perhaps you shouldn’t share it. Although some work might be involved, it can be a very quick way to verify if the claims are true or false.
One way our laziness creeps in is through our biases. Just like you can practice riding a bike, so that is as easy to you as walking, so also you can end up practicing thinking in specific patterns. Making decisions is much faster with such practice but you can also quickly make a bad choice if there is something new to consider. Your mental bias can blind you to what the truth might really be.
One way to tackle your biases is to talk about why you think something you read is true or false. Other people who have had a different upbringing will often bring their own lens to the discussion. This makes for a great opportunity for both people to learn.
This learning, though, means that you are probably both a little wrong. So be patient with one another and accept that you might be wrong. By taking the hard work approach you can start to take your own pride out of the search for truth.
Serving your friends on social media
Many times hoaxes prey on peoples’ good intentions to do the best by their friends. Turn that good will to a good service for your online community and apply some critical thinking to your feed. It could save you some embarrassment but at the extreme end it may save someone's life.
Sam Gillespie is a composer, programmer and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html