The upside of the Internet – you can easily communicate with millions of people around the world at once.
The downside – you can easily communicate with millions of people around the world at once, and there is no one to check your facts.
The really big downside – among those millions of people, there are a lot who will believe just about anything you write.
Growing up (this would actually be prior to the Internet) I remember seeing the wacky tabloid headlines while waiting with my parents to go through the grocery checkout. Even as a neophyte in the ways of the world, I could tell that they were pretty farfetched, if not humorous.
Classics would often include a reference to aliens, actors, actors who the tabloid claimed were aliens, Bigfoot, politicians, vampires (Pre-Twilight), werewolves, giant lizards, giant babies, giant lizard babies, and on and on. A quick search on the Internet nets stories such as “Woman with four legs opens dance studio,” “Bat Boy leads cops on three-state chase,” and more. (That Bat Boy – half bat, half boy, really pops up a lot. That kid’s nothing but trouble!)
The point is, this was all clearly fiction presented as “news.” I often worried about those who would read those articles and believe them, concerned about the wife who had her hair blown off when her husband sneezed (an actual headline.)
As a writer and journalist, I often tried to imagine sitting in the writers’ room as they came up with these whoppers and how they approached the stories.
“I’ve got one. Elvis found alive. Elected as U.S. Senator.”
“Nope. Too believable. Next.”
“Alien marries Bigfoot. Actor plays part of minister.”
“Yes! Now we’re talking!”
I would hope that they come up with these headlines and laugh, knowing they were just having a good time creating interesting fiction. I really hope that they weren’t actually thinking how people would take these things as reality.
Still, the majority of people see the headlines while waiting to pay for groceries. Laugh. Shake their head. Move on.
Now, jump ahead a few years to the Internet age.
And apparently there are a lot more people willing to believe the craziest stuff than I had anticipated. As long as it’s on the Internet, at least.
A lot of times, it’s about some perceived slight of Truth, Justice and/or the American Way. One rumor that went viral – i.e. everyone felt the need to tell everyone else about it – happened a few years ago when the U.S. Mint began to print new $1 coins featuring each president. The coins had no sooner been put into circulation than the e-mails began flying and people were ready to riot.
The problem? The U.S. Mint had purposely eliminated “In God We Trust” from the coins. And, in a way that only Internet logic can work, that became a clear sign – a beacon, if you will – of a plot to remove religion and God from the country (that last part was lifted directly from the e-mails of the time.) Which would pretty much mean the end of society as we know it.
But there are a few problems with that plot theory. Not least of which was the fact that the words had not been removed, but merely moved onto the edge of the coin.
What did come out of this was a new mandate by Congress that had the U.S. Mint put the words on the front again because there is apparently a large portion of our society who couldn’t figure the new version out.
But, thanks to the Internet, this rather crazy idea really got a foothold and had a lot of people really believing it.
And it continues to this day. There’s not a week (or even a day, sometimes) that goes by when Facebook or Twitter or any other means of worldwide communication doesn’t have some “I can’t believe they let this happen,” or “We need to protest (insert name of company here) because of (perceived slight toward something).”
I’ve tried to figure this out, and can’t. Why would people – mostly intelligent ones at that – fall for this sort of stuff? If some random stranger ran up to you on the street proclaiming that the local fast food restaurant was caught turning out a homeless waif and his baby brother because they are clearly some heartless corporation lackey, would you believe them?
One would hope not. But, put that story and any of a hundred variations online and it becomes fact. Soon, you’ve got people calling for protests and boycotts and all sorts of retaliations. Because of a rumor. Something unverified or documented. Or a misunderstanding.
Skepticism can be a good thing in these cases. Where did the story come from? Is it more than one source? Is the source biased against the subject of the issue?
I have noticed that people are prone to believe wild stories about large corporations and things that make them look bad. And, in this day and age, a negative rumor is guaranteed to get far more traction than any truth the company can state, and a lot faster, too. My question is, what business that wants to stay in business would so blatantly do something that would be so harmful to their image?
For me, when I see such stories online, it comes down to the idea that if someone I didn’t know came up to me and told me some wild bit of salacious news, would I believe them?
And the answer is almost always – probably not.
Unless it’s a story about Bat Boy. Always believe stories involving a half boy, half bat.