I think we can all agree that 2016 was pretty awful. Election years tend to be tense anyway, but we also lost a lot of cultural icons, pioneers and innovators. We are all limping into this new year, bruised by one thing or another. It could be the friends we lost because of politics (Yes, this actually happened to me), or the people who passed away (my mother-in-law among others), or media/social media fatigue.
One of the things that seems to have made this year harder and most frustrating for us is the challenge presented by being able to identify what is true and what is not on the internet. This year many of us saw a sharp rise in fake news shared on Facebook and Twitter. When we see click bait headlines on major media sites, they are starting to reach critical mass.
The internet is an AMAZING tool. It’s an equalizer for those of us who produce and distribute media. It means that an attic dwelling hermit like me can transmit my books and reach readers all over the world. But this tool being available to legitimate producers, means that it is also available to illegitimate producers; the fake news purveyors, conspiracy theorists, plagiarists, click/like farmers, hackers and scam artists.
With all of these things being shared on social media, your Facebook feed starts to feel a lot like the worst dinner party ever. And there you are stuck between a busybody and a drunk conspiracy theorist afraid to leave because you might miss something. I can completely understand why this constant buzz of internet dross can make people want to delete their accounts and go dark. Sometimes it’s tempting. Of course, if I did check out I’d probably never sell another book. I don’t want any of you to check out either.
While we can’t do anything about some of the people we may lose, or the natural or even man-made disasters that may befall us in 2017. We CAN work TOGETHER to make social media and the internet better for us. We can reclaim the equalizing communication tool that it could be from the people who would use it to manipulate and misdirect us.
So, I would like to introduce some new year’s resolutions that I will be enacting or continuing. And invite you to try some of these too. They’re simple behaviors that we can all do to change the tone and quality of the flood of information we take in every day. If we can all agree to these, we can make social media a better place all around.
1. Be kind. No bullying should be a no brainer, right? And to be fair, I generally didn’t do any conscious bullying before. You probably don’t either. However, one person’s witty tweet or Facebook post can be hurtful to someone else. So, I think we should agree that it’s okay to criticize someone’s actions if those actions are harmful to others. But it’s not okay to criticize someone for who they are, how they look, or who they love. Casually snarky comments about someone’s bad haircut, ill-fitting leggings, developmental challenges, or sexual preferences might be funny for a moment, but can be hurtful for a lifetime even when we don’t realize it or intend to be hurtful.
2. I will NOT share fake news. But how do I know if it’s fake news? Snopes has some good advice on the basics, but the fakers are becoming really good at making stories look legit. So, we’re going to have to do some critical thinking.
- Don’t share an article just based on the headline. Even some of my favorite news aggregating sites rewrite the original headlines into sensational clickbait just to get shares. Don’t fall for this. Read the article and think critically about whether or not you should share it.
- Beware of confirmation bias. Look, I’m probably more liberal than you and am definitely ready to believe the worst of Donald Trump and anyone associated with him. So, if I see a story that tells me Trump bites the heads off live kittens in ritual sacrifices to Vladimir Putin in order to gain power, a small part of me might see that as vindication of my extreme dislike. However, if I tamp that impulse down and listen to my rational mind I’ll quickly realize that the story is a fake. While that example sounds extreme, there were some extreme stories making the rounds during the election (Pizzagate, anyone?), most of which were false. Likewise, if a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. Look for the catch.
- Check sources. If the story originated with a partisan blog on either side, you might want to wait until it’s been confirmed by legitimate journalists like those at The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR/PBS, and yes even the Wall Street Journal. I know that television news with its sound bites and pundits has blurred the lines between opinion and journalism, but there is still such a thing as journalistic ethics and it’s usually found in print. I know the story over the last 10 years has been about the death of print journalism, but newspapers were doing the REAL reporting during the election by reporting on policy proposals and business/political records instead of just talking about the horserace like they do on TV.
3. Dial down the hyperbole. One side effect of having almost unlimited information at our fingertips is that in order to be heard through the noise, the tone of almost everything on the internet has collectively escalated. It seems like every day there is some new outrage, or mania for people to indulge in. Cronuts are the BEST FOOD EVER or someone is the WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD. And yes, even outrage can be an indulgence. When so many people feel powerless, giving vent to our frustrations feels good. But what does all this heightened emotion get us? After the momentary release of excitement or fury, we’re just left more exhausted and more frustrated which is how we were feeling to begin with. It also blunts the meaning of words. When everything gets a superlative, then those superlatives aren’t superlative anymore. Best and worst don’t mean what they used to. They’re used interchangeably with good and bad these days. We run out of ways to express when things are TRULY the worst or the best.
4. Keep things positive. Stop complaining. This can be a hard one. And I’m not saying that you can NEVER complain. But some people tend to use social media to vent whatever woe-is-me feelings they might be having at any given moment. You’ve seen them in your Facebook feed. They very rarely have something good to say. I understand that folks might need an avenue to vent their feelings, and sometimes it’s okay to do that on social media. But when most of what you put out into the world is complaining, it can actually do damage to you and the people who see it. Constant complaining isn’t just bad for your brain and relationships, it’s also bad for your brand. Most businesses know that a constant complainer on staff creates a bad work environment. And by now I hope that most people know that businesses do look at a potential employee’s social media posts. Constant complaining leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and disappointment . The only way to break that cycle is to just stop. So keep it positive this year, folks. And if there is someone in your Facebook feed who complains constantly, you can defend your own well-being by tuning that out. Get to know the Hide feature on Facebook. You can hide a person’s posts without unfriending them. Keep the connection, but you don’t have to see their negativity in your feed.
5. Avoid Like Farming I will not like or share anything that specifically says “Like/Share if you remember…he/she/it is cute/beautiful…”, or “One like equal’s one prayer”, or “share to win a million dollars/an RV/a free vacation…”. These are all examples of like farming, and they are the bottom feeding of the internet. Don’t know what like farming is? It’s when a fly-by-night page posts and shares memes that display sick children, recall items of nostalgia, or promise winning money or prizes. Depending on your Facebook privacy settings, clicking on these can do anything from adding to the general noise to letting the perpetrators see your personal information. Like you mother told you if you ignore them, they will go away.
6. Be original. I will not copy and paste Facebook statuses EVER. This one is pretty simple, and is nothing new for me. Simply put, you will never see me share a status on Facebook that begins with, “I bet my friends won’t share this”, “Please make this your status for an hour”, or even “cancer sucks”. First, I have enough to say on my own without copying and pasting some crap that achieves nothing beyond annoying the people who see it. Second, I don’t tolerate this kind of emotional blackmail, I’m certainly not going to perpetuate it on you.
My husband pointed out to me as I was bouncing this list off him, that the people who could benefit the most from this probably won’t read it. I considered giving it some sort of click bait headline. “She sits down to write a blog post and what happens next made my jaw drop.” Or something outrage inducing like, “Obscure fiction writer lectures the entire internet on how to behave”. Or even a completely fake news headline about Donald Trump being a secret liberal who is going to give us all single payer healthcare. But I did say that those things are bad.
I’m sure there are some folks out there who enjoy the toxic soup of hyperbole and disinformation who will be outraged at me for a few minutes before the next outrage comes along. But the truth is, I’m just a girl standing in front of the internet asking folks to act like grownups.