This op-ed was originally written by myself and Madina Zaman for Crossing Borders.
”Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it”
This quote has passed through our minds constantly, during the last few weeks. It was in particular the picture of Abraham Lincoln next to the quote, which made it harder for us to forget it. It’s funny but also kind of sad, as it truly represents the reality of the social media today and its – as a result – uncritical users.
During this summer, when Portugal played their match against Ghana in the World Cup, we remember everyone praising Cristiano Ronaldo afterwards on the social media – even his foes. This praising was not a result of Portugal winning; rather it was because of Ronaldo’s new haircut. Rumours rapidly spread on Facebook and other social media platforms that he got his new hair cut in honour of a courageous little boy who was suffering from cancer. This, however, quickly turned out to be a lie. The mother of the boy with cancer soon after posted on Facebook that this widespread rumour was in fact not true.
For some, this might seem as a little “oopsie”, but for us – and hopefully a lot of others – this episode uncovers a tragic reality, which is one of the more serious disadvantages of social media.
This episode is a perfect example (but certainly not one of its kinds) of the huge lack of critical thinking and the spread of false information on Facebook and other social media platforms. Everything from incorrect celebrity quoting’s and made-up news stories to false historical and political facts and stupid rumours seem to have spread everywhere on Facebook, like a dangerous virus.
I remember a couple of months ago when young Danes suddenly started havoc on social media because of some political blunder. Everyone were suddenly pissed off and frustrated because of this blunder, but no one had realised that the article, which lighted on the fire to this brief mayhem, was in fact from the year 2000. The fact that most of those who had shared the article thought that it was recent news definitely shows the amount of critical thinking going on online.
Another episode that really made us think about this important matter was the Israel-Gaza war this summer; this tragic period of so many innocent people being killed and injured also had an other tragic aspect to it, which had little to do with the conflict itself. During this period, the number of articles, pictures, videos, etc, being posted on social media with absolutely no sense of critical thinking was deeply frightening. Fake material with altered facts and content were being spread viral rapidly; videos with dubbed voices and altered content, pictures with wrong information and false facts – and nobody seemed to really care about this.
We can’t help but feel frightened when thinking about episodes like these. It seems as everything on the internet somehow seem reliable and for a lot of people don’t even require double-checking or critical thinking. People don’t seem to think anymore when posting about different issues and matters on social media. If it suits your way of thinking or the prejudices you might have had on this particular subject – it’s post-able. No need to actually read the articles you post, the headlines seems to be enough. It seems like when we log on to Facebook, our brains log off.
We see it everywhere though; ask a youngster about the beginning date of World War II, you will most likely hear the famous sentence: “wait, I’ll Google it”. With the internet, ‘knowledge’ is being served to us on a silver platter. We no longer have to work hard to gain knowledge. I mean, why read a book about the French Revolution, when you can easily and quickly read everything you need to know about it on Wikipedia? Why actually read articles and historical material to keep updated on actual matters, when you can just follow a hashtag on Twitter and Instagram?
Don’t get us wrong; the fact that we now have all kind of knowledge accessible just a ‘click away’, is unquestionably beneficial and great in many ways, but, as mentioned, it also has with it disadvantages. The aforementioned examples truly show that we have a huge lack of critical thinking on social media. This goes for young people, as well as for adults. If we read an article on Wikipedia we believe it to be completely true without giving it any doubts – despite the fact that every man and child have access to edit these articles. If we see a picture on Facebook with some facts on it, we will believe every word it has to say and repost it immediately, without using any parts of the brain we were given.
Webpages, tweets, Youtube videos, Instagram photos, Facebook posts – wherever it might be, we have to remain critical in our thinking. We have a responsibility for ourselves and for the people we share our information with; when we share some made-up and altered material on the Internet, we become accomplices in passing on and spreading false knowledge.
Give it time (!) and always think twice when gaining and receiving knowledge. To the teachers out there: teach your pupils about this other dangerous aspect to the internet, teach them how to gain real knowledge and how to be really critical out there. To the pupils: teach your teachers, if they don’t teach you. If one day you see them using Wikipedia or a post on Facebook or Twitter, without having done any clear criticism of the source, you tell them.
Same goes for everyone else out there! Let’s do something about this lack of critical thinking and vicious circle of the spreading of false facts and knowledge on the internet. The next time you want to drop an article or a video on Facebook, Twitter or whatever – give it a minute before you upload; take a big breath, read or watch the material again and then think for a bit; “is the source reliable?”, “do I actually know what I am putting out there?”.
Let’s make the internet a safe place for our brains to be in.