The banal trope, “don’t believe everything you read” has never been more poignant than right now.
The internet is still very much the wild west it was in its infancy -its just become a lot more crowded recently. There are no defined parameters that limit expression online – all opinions have a place and every niche and subsection’s subsection is thoroughly represented. The internet is a frame – it is innately nothing more than a platform, it does not lean or bend, it is whatever you tell it to be; it’s malleable. It is a reflection, a record of feelings, thoughts, opinions and angst; it’s a footprint painted in zeros and ones. And there is a sense of vibrant lawlessness to it that -in many ways- functions as the creative pulse behind it -its fuel. It is one of the only arenas where expression is essentially unlimited. All contributors to the internet are solitary sovereign nations, free to govern and communicate in any way they so choose. And while the web’s amorphous tendencies are what make it such an endlessly intriguing province of interaction, it is also what has served to severely muddle the realms of fact and fiction.
We have now reached a point in which, “publishing” something online is easier than it ever has been. Anyone with a laptop and a few, spare bucks a month can buy a template on Squarespace or WordPress and build a site that -to most eyes- looks fairly legitimate. So while in the past extremists with zero journalistic integrity or writing experience were relegated to angrily commenting on articles on more legitimate sites, now many of those people have their own outlets. Outlets that “publish” articles that have no basis in fact and only serve to gluttonously feed a predefined course of expression. But the issue here is not with the people that build these sites -regardless of how irresponsible and dangerous some of them are- the issue is with the consumers.
As the flow of information grows and becomes increasingly less trustworthy, we have a responsibility to tirelessly wade through the fallacies and misinformation to find the truth. The internet if now a venerable, swirling, shit show of deception inaccuracy and fear mongering. And everyone seems to know this -it appears to be common knowledge- and yet, so many seem to have lopped off their bullshit antenna and completely abandoned the common and healthy practice of discernment.
A quick perusal of Facebook or Twitter will provide striking evidence of the downfall of judgement as a whole. Why is it that, at this vital point in which things seem to be at their most clustered, manic and decidedly polar that we seem to have abandoned our ability to determine real news from garbage. Is is that we have just been beaten down by the unceasing barrage of information to such a degree that we have surrendered our power of discernment? Have we just given up on finding truth? Last week Presidential hopeful Donald Trump retweeted a meme that derived from an organization that does not exist and was created by a Twitter account ran by a neo-Nazi. And this stuff happens all the time, (although, this was the most egregious error by a Presidential hopeful -at least thus far) our shrewdness seems to have faded, woefully into the background.
But there is good news – this is an easy fix. If an article/meme comes across your feed, and this particular article seems to fully articulate a feeling you wanted to express, Google its content before sharing. If you see a meme that is so incendiary you feel you simply must let people know about it, Google its content before sharing. If you see an article or “study” that derives from a source that does not even bother to hide their agenda in the actual title of their website, Google its content before sharing. In 2015, my sum total of Facebook “friends” that have shared Onion or Onion-like articles as non-satirical, completely real news stories currently sits at 8. A cursory, 10 second Google search would’ve alerted the Donald that the “Crime Statistics Bureau – San Francisco” does not exist, and it would’ve informed my aforementioned binary compatriots that, “The Onion is an American digital media company and news satire organization that publishes articles on international, national, and local news.”
Most of these sites that spread false facts and made up statistics are not too difficult to spot. These outlets nearly always prey upon fear – placing a picture of a political figure next to incendiary rhetoric describing how he/she will or is personally ruining your life. Pulitzer Prize winning, non-partisan fact-checking website Politifact has studied political memes shared on Facebook since 2007 and found that only 20% were true. Moreover, when they analyzed political chain emails they found that only 7% were true. So if you’re not too dexterous with a computer and researching the validity of a meme or email chain letter’s claims seems far too arduous a task, err on the side of data and simply just assume all of them are false. Furthermore, in the past few years there has been a series of completely fake websites that report on stories fabricated from thin air. Do not share any articles from: Empire News, The Daily Currant, World News Daily Report, Empire News, National Report, Huzlers or Free Wood Post, they are all fake sites. Most of them claim to operate as comedic entities, -although this writer fails to see the comedic merit in nearly all of them- and many hide their identities in order to be deceptive in the attempt to achieve virality for utterly ridiculous stories – and it happens all the time.
The point of this piece is to appeal to the collective better judgement of a public that loves and lives to ravenously consume. And this consumption is not necessarily a bad thing – we just need to slow it down a bit, curb the mania and be more careful as to what we are consuming. This is not to say that one should simply peruse massive, well-known websites and stay away from lesser known contributors. On the contrary, there are a myriad of smaller sites (The Overgrown included) that go through great lengths to determine fact from fiction and hearsay from truth to maintain a high-level of journalistic integrity. But please be weary, be shrewd and be judicious.
The internet is an overgrown forest filled with far more wolves than rabbits.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the Editor-in-chief of The Overgrown.