For many people, one of the greatest anxieties surrounding media is the suggestion that no one cares for facts anymore. Quotes are misattributed, false claims gain traction, and outright lies are protected as “alternate viewpoints”.
Donald Trump finds success in his campaign for US President despite the fact that barely 8% of his statements are rated as true or mostly true by Politifact. The anti-vaccination movement thrives in online communes as members shelter themselves from facts and cling to offensive lies about autism. Even those who oppose Trump can’t manage to tell the truth.
The worst part of this? Call someone out online and they’ll either block you or say that they don’t care if it’s true or false because they like the sentiment of the message.
Snopes can debunk all the falsehoods they want; ABC Fact Check can tell us the degree of political spin; I can coin an awesome hashtag like #Deanbunked when I call out bullshit; it will make not one iota difference if nobody cares what the truth is.
The general assumption is: “if it’s online, it’s probably true”.
Unfortunately this is a cultural hangover from a time when getting published meant relying on facts to make a point. With everyone self-publishing on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and even WordPress, fact-checking is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Worse still, as the the subreddit /r/findbostonbombers showed, it can have disastrous results. Social media tried to organise the search for the Boston Marathon bombers, leading to Sunil Tripathi, amongst others, being mistakenly identified across social media and in some news media as one of the bombers. Tripathi was, of course, innocent and later discovered to have taken his own life.
This brings me to my next point: not even traditional news services are immune to this trend.
Watch any of the Republican debates in the US and you see candidates spewing all manner of untruths that the hosts are happy to let stand, lest they be accused of bias. The Sydney Morning Herald was torn to shreds late last month for the front-page “Story of Louise”, an allegation of gang-rape and police failure that was quickly proved false by multiple sources.
The most any of us can do is to use Google or reverse image searches to double check the veracity of any seemingly incredible meme or story sent our way, and calling it out when it proves false.
However, it has become a regrettable actuality of our times that, in spite of how much access we have to facts, the truth can be difficult to find.