“Self-publishing,” as my friend 1 says, is the “Internet’s greatest gift is, of course, its greatest curse.” And nothing brought that home to me more than what happened last evening. I fell prey to the classic trap of re-sharing faulty information, which had been (not that this is any excuse) shared with me by a trusted source. The article looked genuine. It was supposedly from Stanford, and it gave good tips on how to take precautions against and self-diagnose COVID-19. It turns out, as The Verge later reported, that it was simply wrong and full of misinformation. 2 I am glad that I didn’t post it on the social web and only shared it with one person, and in an email at that.
In hindsight, if there is any solace that I can take, it is that I didn’t spread the misinformation more broadly. Still, the close call forced me to consider how I might avoid such a misstep in the future. How do I know that what I am sharing on social platforms is actually good and authentic information?
Over the next few weeks, we will be sitting in our homes, distanced and disconnected from in-person human interaction, and we will be even more plugged into the network than usual. We are going to be bombarded with information. Increasingly, we will feel that, by sharing something, we are doing something. It is how we are as people now: the stream, the feed, and the dopamine is what defines us. We have become addicted to them, and we think of them as a mirror for our existence. It is how we tell ourselves we matter.
But the real question is: Why do we have to share? What is the real value? Because if we do share, we are often adding more engagement “fire” to the platform algorithms, which in turn leads to the further spread of misinformation 3:
“Their whole algorithmic model is based on engagement – and lots of it. The model is not concerned about the consequences. The more inflammatory the content, the more engagement it drives. The greater the engagement, the more viral the content becomes. And the wheel turns, and turns, and turns.”
4, we all have a role to play in the spreading of good or misinformation. Let’s all think before we share.
March 15, 2020, San Francisco
PS: I have made a checklist for myself on how to deal with information that I might be inclined to share. Here it is:
- Trust national and international health organizations.
- Trust data from sources like Worldometer. It has updated information on cases, deaths, and other important details.
- When reading information from social media sites, check who is sharing it and double-check the veracity of the account. A doctor, a scientist, or a public health expert is probably a good source but click on their website anyway.
- Resist the urge to share anything from unfamiliar sites. Avoid the tabloids, clickbait headlines, any information without multiple sources is dodgy, and avoid opinions and hot takes.