Remember that State Farm commercial with the lady who “read it on the internet, so it must be true”? The reason that line resonated with so many people is because of the ridiculousness of it. We all know that anyone can start up a website, and write anything they want, without bothering to fact check it. But, we’ve always sort of assumed that news sources didn’t do that. That if we saw a story reported enough times, and in an article on a reputable site, that it must be true.
Several recent stories rocketing around the web, picking up millions of views, turned out to be fake or embellished: a Twitter tale of a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, later described by the writer as a short story; a child’s letter to Santa that detailed an Amazon.com link in crayon, but was actually written by a grown-up comedian in 2011; and an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.
Some of these stories even went further than the internet, they were reported on television and in newspaper articles as well. They were passed around thousands of times and seen by millions of people, yet once they were discovered to be untrue, how many people actually saw that fact? I’d put my guess at maybe 10% of the people who saw the original story, and feel like I’m being generous. Retractions aren’t nearly as viral as a good snarky story about airline travel. Of course, these examples are relatively harmless (unless you’re one of the people donating money, of course). What about the bigger untruths that are out there? What about all the bad information we get from online sources about school shootings, or completely made up statistics designed to get “viral” attention because they seem to “prove” what some of us want to believe already. How many of us actually check the sources of those stats before posting them to Facebook in order to win an argument?
The thing is, we’d all be better off looking with some skepticism at any, and every, story that is getting passed around. It’s all too easy for us to look at a story that doesn’t agree with our world view and say “well, it was on the internet so it’s probably not true”, but how often to you look with the same critical eye towards stories you agree with? Let’s face it, we live in an age where even 60 Minutes is getting things all wrong in the interest of drawing eyeballs. If we can’t trust 60 Minutes to be right, why are we trusting relatives and old High School buddies to be our news gatherers?