We’ve all been there. Someone you love, perhaps a friend, or maybe just someone who shares a social circle with you, posts something on Facebook. It’s some alarmist post about candy-flavored crystal meth or the dangers of dihydrogen-monoxide. Maybe it’s something political, accusing some public figure of operating a human trafficking ring out of the basement of a single-story, basement-less pizza parlor. Heck, maybe they bought into the “QAnon” bullshit and think “The Storm” is about to drop the hammer on every politician they’ve been told to hate. You don’t really believe it, or maybe you do because that candy-flavored crystal meth thing seems like just the sort of horrible shit a no-good drug dealer would get up to in order to start reeling in a bunch of child customers. The point is, the pictures are really sad and the idea sounds just plausible enough that you share it to, or maybe you just think about it for now but then decide to share it later after you’ve seen it come up a few more times.
This is why I’ve temporarily (with the option of taking it permanent) deactivated my Facebook account. There’s just so much absolute garbage getting chucked around the web by people who would rather just share whatever horrible, terrifying thing they read to be on the safe side. It’s not like it costs them anything to click that “Share” or “Retweet” button. They just pass it along in case it might be true like someone refusing to take a stance on whether or not they believe ghosts exist because it’s immaterial to trying to address why all the lights on that side of the theater keep burning out so quickly. Except it’s not really the same, is it? If you don’t state whether or not you believe in ghosts, you’re effectively ending a conversation. It’s not like you’re going to walk around yelling that you don’t want to say you don’t believe in ghosts just in case they’re real, you just believe it, share it with people who have some common experiences with you, and move on. When you share stuff on social media, it appears to be an endorsement of sorts and other people who value your opinion will believe something they otherwise would not.
Don’t worry, I’m not just going to complain about this today! I have a solution! The rest of this post is dedicated to giving you some tips to figure out if something is true or not. I will also make a few blanket statements that you can take as true just so we can get them out of the way. First, vaccines don’t cause autism, though I will say the debate still goes on about whether or not autism causes vaccines. Additionally, the world isn’t fucking flat. I’m not going to cite this one because I will reach across the internet and belt you one or, in less hyperbolic terms, just block you if you ever argue that the world is flat. Google or even Wikipedia will provide all the evidence you need for that one and it isn’t difficult to find unlike good sources for the vaccines thing now that the anti-vax movement has learned how to market itself on the internet.
The first thing you should look for on a Facebook post of dubious fact is the original poster. Almost every asinine thing that shows up on your timeline was posted by some random person and then shared repeatedly until it made its way to your wall. If you can find the original post, you will often discover some interesting information. The few times I’ve actually been unsure enough to look, the original poster has had a lot of “fake profile” flags. Usually their username is random (you can check that by looking at the URL of their page in your browser), they have some random assortment of jobs and such that make little sense. They also generally don’t have a lot of friends or old photos of themselves. Additionally, their profiles are usually pretty open to the public as well, so it makes it easy to realize there isn’t much information attached to that profile other than inflammatory comments about some kid getting his mouth blown up by grape-flavored crystal meth. If that doesn’t settle it one way or another, give the story itself the sniff test. No actual drug distributor is going to great crystal meth in fifteen different flavors and sell exclusively to children for so little money it’s laughable to event consider.
If all that fails, or if the post originates in a news site for one particularly hard-leaning side of the media or another, check out Snopes.com. Most of the time, for all the big controversies, anyway, Snopes will investigate the controversy, rate its truthfulness, and provide a ton of information available to the public that backs up their rating. I’ve yet to see Snopes actually get something wrong and searching their website doesn’t show any promising results. Searching on google provides me with a list of results that themselves could use a check on Snopes, so I’m comfortable saying the site is reliably accurate.
If the post is on Twitter and it’s making the rounds through your various friend groups, Snopes is still a good place to check, but actually following it back to the first tweet and discovering the context of the quoted tweet will shed a lot of light on the quote itself. Additionally, a good thing to check is the profile of the person sharing it on your time and the profile of the person who originally posted it. You can usually tell whether or not either person is a trustworthy source by the contexts of their profile blurb, the things they like, and what they tend to comment on or retweet. If you find any conspiracy theories are aren’t shared as an example of the moronic things people sometimes believe, then I suggest ignoring them and everything they share entirely.
Probably the biggest rule is to think critically about everything you read. If it feels suspicious, then it’s probably fake. Not everything will be fake, of course, but a lot of the shit that passes through five meme groups, a profile for long-term child-rearing advice, and some kind of group that has a name like “The blankity-blanks for the unification of blankness” is probably not trustworthy. So much of it is the political/social equivalent of the emails that claimed you’d die if you didn’t send the email on to twenty more people before the next time you went to the bathroom. Find yourself a few trusted news sources or news aggregates (I prefer direct sources, though most of the aggregators tend to be good at providing direct links) and stick with them rather than what Mr “Aree-al Mahn” posts to Facebook.