January 23, 2013

Misty Watson: Social media full of hoaxes

One of my co-workers is secretly dating Sofia Vergara.

What? You don’t believe me? Is it because I didn’t first doctor an image and post it to Facebook with some sweet love story in the description? (Sorry, Charles. I tried!)

Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll start my rumor the right way, the way everyone else does — through social media.

I’ll download a copyrighted image, alter it and put some text across it, then post it to Facebook. That makes everything true, right?

Why else do I see every other week someone reposting that Morgan Freeman has died? He seems to have more lives than a cat. Why do people keep posting a “Facebook Privacy Notice” saying it will protect their account against copyright and privacy infringements? (Ironic since most people on Facebook violate copyright laws all the time). And why do people keep posting that you can type your ATM PIN in backwards to summon police? Don’t even get me started on the rumors circulating following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the resulting heated gun control controversy.

It amazes me how quickly people believe something just because they see a friend “share” an image online. It has to be true since my great aunt’s brother-in-law’s second cousin posted it.

We’re in what’s referred to as the age of information, but I often wonder is this the kind of information I want being spread? The kind where no one checks the validity of a story before passing it on?

As a child, the urban legends seemed a lot tamer. You know, like “don’t drink a soda and eat Pop Rocks.” (I did it anyway). They’re running rampant now. Every time I log on to Facebook I see something else that makes me roll my eyes and consider hitting the unfriend button.

I got into the news business because I liked writing and I liked taking photos. As I worked toward my career in newspapers, I realized that I liked being part of something that aims at reporting on truth and facts. It doesn’t matter what lengths we go to to try to get the entire story — every fact and every detail — right, people still think the media is in on some big conspiracy theory to keep the public in the dark about what’s really going on. I’ve never worked in the media at the national level, but I can promise you that’s not the case here.

I often find myself frustrated, asking “Why do I work in the business I do if everyone’s just going to believe everything they read online? Why do I sacrifice holidays, weekends and nights with my family if everyone’s just going to believe untrue information on Facebook?”

With all the information floating around online it’s hard to know who to trust. It’s hard to know what information to believe and what to dismiss. I personally dismiss it all unless it comes from a news source, and even then if it comes from certain sources, I’m doubtful. (Snopes.com is a good source to check the validity of a story. So is doing a Google news search. Why don’t you start with those two places before hitting that share button?)

The good thing about the Internet is that it gives anyone who wants it a voice. There are numerous sites where you can start up a blog or even a website at no cost, and of course, there’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube to help us be heard.

But when too many people have a voice, all you hear is noise.

That’s all I hear. It’s like the loud murmur from the cafeteria at school when I was a kid.

I went to Northwest Elementary kindergarten through third grade and Spring Place Elementary in fourth and fifth grade. At each of the schools at some point there was a traffic light hanging in the cafeteria. When the noise level was acceptable it was on green. When the noise level was getting too loud it went to yellow, and if it reached red, we were often punished with silent lunches for a week.

For me, the traffic light has been set to red for a while. I’m ready for some silence — at least when it comes to the online rumors.

Murray County native Misty Watson is a photographer and staff writer for The Daily Citizen. You can follow her on Twitter: @mistydwatson.

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