Beware of misinformation
Being a journalist isn’t easy. You are constantly exposed to new situations that your formal education did not prepare you for. You have to think on your feet, question everything and keep a cool head at all times. If you look below the surface, you often discover a story hidden in the weeds. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar — the trick is knowing what’s real and what’s not.
That has become especially difficult with the popularity of social media. Anybody can make a meme and circulate it to their friends, who then circulate it to their friends. It doesn’t matter if the meme is true. If it inspires strong emotion, people will share it without doing any research whatsoever.
“This is what the mainstream media isn’t telling you,” they’ll confidently boast. “Here’s what happened when you were distracted.”
This so-called distraction can be pretty much anything. I’ve seen reference to Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 as a distraction from the “real news story.” Here’s the deal: The mainstream media covers major stories that affect the entire world. That doesn’t make these stories any less important to share — in fact, I’d say it highlights their importance.
We are in the middle of the first worldwide pandemic since 1918. That is big news! We are also in the middle of an ongoing civil rights movement, a movement that has existed as long as America has. Black Lives Matter didn’t just pop up for no reason, and the protests are big news. To not cover these stories would be a disservice to readers everywhere. These stories are not a distraction — they are indicative of the world around us, whether we want to admit it or not.
Memes have always been prone to include misinformation, but the worst ones are meant to purely propagate harmful conspiracy theories. You’ll see it any time after a mass shooting — the survivors that speak out to support gun control are demonized and called “crisis actors.” Imagine your child surviving a school shooting and being told that the shooting never happened, that they are an actor put in place to take your guns away. Seems pretty insidious, doesn’t it?
The latest conspiracy theory memes claim that blonde-haired blue-eyed little girls are being trafficked in cabinets sold by Wayfair. While child trafficking is a real issue, it does not happen this way. Conspiracy theorists claim that big companies are hiding child trafficking in plain site, that they are intentionally leaving breadcrumbs. But why would a major corporation purposefully leave a trail of illegal behavior, especially as it relates to young children being kidnapped and exploited? It doesn’t make sense because it’s just not true.
The people who create these conspiracy theories are banking on eliciting an emotional response from everyone who sees them. People are less likely to question even the most ridiculous conspiracy theory if it caters to their fear. In this case, the child trafficking conspiracy theory taps into the fear of children being stolen from the suburbs.
I’ve seen the JonBenet Ramsey case mentioned in several of these conspiracy theories. I find that pretty insensitive toward Ramsey’s loved ones, who have never been convicted for her murder despite the alleged findings of internet sleuths everywhere. We can have our theory on unsolved cases, but it’s not OK to state a theory as fact — especially when it comes to the death of a child.
Sure, there’s plenty of corruption in the world. Journalists are trained to uncover that corruption, something that gives us a bad reputation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working on a routine story only to be told that I am asking leading questions or looking for something that isn’t there. How come journalists are seen as snakes for doing their job, but conspiracy theorists on the internet applaud themselves for seeing the so-called truth?
How come so many people share memes with blatantly false information while dismissing legitimate news reports? Have you ever thought about what this behavior might mean for public health and safety? When we reject legitimate news in favor of false narratives, we are harming everyone around us.
The next time you see a meme on Facebook that makes you feel angry or sad, I encourage you to take a step back before hitting the share button. Do some independent research outside of social media. Consider the implications of sending false information into the world, and show support for journalists who have been trained to gather verifiable facts to help determine what’s true and what’s not.
It’s tempting to fall down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole when the world is on fire around you. We are living in scary times, but I hope you will join me in sharing the truth and nothing but the truth.