OPINION: Social media spreads misinformation like fungus

Memes have become substitute for genuine wit, zingers for truth

By Steve Smyth

On March 12th, 1989, British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners Lee published a paper called “Information Management: A proposal.” The paper spawned a little thing we know call the World Wide Web, which will be 31 years old next month.

Most of us in the world couldn’t imagine life without the WWW. It permeates every moment of our waking and working hours, both sending and receiving information and allowing communication with customers, suppliers and information providers across the world.

The designers behind the WWW envisioned an exchange of pure data between scientists. They most certainly would not have thought of places like the Dark Web, where Alt-right groups, white supremacists, bombmakers and pedophiles carry on their nefarious affairs with impunity.

Nor, one would think, could they have imagined Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other of the endless platforms that have integrated it into our modern world.

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I will admit that I am a Facebook junkie. I have been rightly accused of oversharing of information and have shared things online that would, in a past world, scuttle any future thoughts of running for office.

Daily, I watch people share things that are not quite true at best and outright lies at worst. Seemingly intelligent people don’t differentiate between political distortions in Canada and the US. Clicking shares without commenting, the misinformation spreading rapidly across multiple platforms like a fungus.

Memes, in which pictures are modified with a comment or saying, have become a substitute for genuine wit and opinion. Why think when someone else has done the thinking for you? Far easier to search for just the right picture than to think of the message you are trying to convey.

While social media allows us to share pictures of our families, our pursuits and our opinions, it has also created cyber bullies and keyboard warriors, both attacking people for their looks, their opinions and for their lifestyle choices. Hiding behind a curtain of anonymity and spreading misinformation on a wide range of topics ranging from climate change and vaccinations to Bill Gates’ secret desire to microchip everyone, these people or groups attack others as well as legitimate ideas from the secrecy of their own phones or keyboards.

One can imagine people forwarding a post with a self-satisfied click of a share button without checking the truth or the facts behind the statement.

A recent example was a “fact” that the Canadian government was changing the Old Age Pension to a “Federal Benefit Payment?” A rudimentary check shows that this is what Social Security (USA) changed its name to and has nothing to do with Canada. But it was shared multiple times and people reacted with anger when corrected. (I read it on Facebook, it must be true?)

Other stories, meant to attack American politicians have been subtly altered to insult or attack Canadian politicians as well, and again, these are shared without simple investigations.

Social media is being used to bludgeon opponents with noise and distraction rather than enlightening them with facts. People search the internet for links and news sources not to learn, but to support opinions they already hold, and anyone who disagrees with you must be attacked and held up as an obvious fool.

If you must forward something to your friends in fit of pique (other than pictures of your kids or your garden, of course) take the time to investigate, to learn the facts and the background information and make sure you are associating yourself with the truth.

Your future self may thank you for it. The rest of us certainly will.

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