By Eric Thomas
The family of a three year old girl who’d been mauled by her grandfather’s dog cried foul when a manager at KFC asked them to leave because her injuries were scaring the other customers. Internet outrage swelled to a roar, KFC launched an investigation and pledged $30,000 to pay for the girl’s medical bills, social media called for prosecution (of course), and donations flooded into a Go Fund Me account to the tune of around $135,000. A week later it turns out the entire incident was a hoax. KFC has not asked for their money back; kudos to them.
The internet is awfully gullible. Poor Dr Oz was called in front of Congress to explain himself last week, and many news outlets were forced to feign shock that his claims might not be based in reality. Of course they weren’t, but still many people acted as though they’d scammed. Why are the American public so routinely fooled?
Hoaxes and hysterias have been around a long time. Snake Oil salesmen, con men and Ponzi schemes are in every corner of recorded history. You might think that our access to vast oceans of information on the internet would change that, but it hasn’t. In fact, humans are just as gullible and easily led as ever. Skepticism is just as rare as any other time; seemingly thousands of Americans are willing to believe something they heard second or third hand, without subjecting their curiosities to even the most basic fact-checking. They seem to believe a single article—or, let’s be honest, a single headline—the first time they read it, before they take that information and spread it to everyone inside their sphere of influence.
People would often rather write than read. We’d rather be in the play than in the audience. We, as human beings, like attention, so we talk as loud as possible. We want other people to think we’re smart and well informed. Who among us isn’t guilty of this? I can’t even count how many times in a conversation where I’ve run out of facts and turned on the conjecture spigot. Oh sure, it sounds like I know what I’m talking about, but I’ve started sprinkling in a few hypotheses among the knowledge. Not when I’m writing of course, I have Google and Wikipedia for assistance here.
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. In fact, it’s probably a good practice to not believe anything you read or see anywhere, and certainly never from a single source. If there is a subject or controversy that interests you, dig a little deeper. Read the counter-argument. Read a few counter arguments. It’s probably a good rule of thumb to read at least two arguments and counter arguments, but to be honest that shouldn’t be enough. Start a Google alert so that you can stay abreast of the latest news from the area that interests you and or watch everything that comes along. Does this sound like too much work to you? If that’s the case, than maybe activism and expertise isn’t for you.
It’s very important to remain skeptical. Many people will dismiss you as cynical, but that’s someone who’s actively trying to influence you. There are no awards for “person who came to the conclusion fastest,” so take your time. Wait a few days. Don’t form opinion based on emotion, let it marinade a little before you pop off at the mouth. If news and the internet has got its blood up, let them run around for a while before you join the mob.
Here are six quick ways to keep yourself from becoming the mob:
1. Click the source links on articles. — This is one of the easiest steps, and few people ever take the time. Blogs and news articles are usually sourced with links to other web pages. Click through them and read the source information yourself. You’ll find that some blog writers can’t be bothered with reading the articles, and they’re writing a reaction to their interpretation of the headline. Don’t have time? That’s okay. Skim, or better yet, save it and come back to it later. The outrage will be waiting for you.
2. Understand the difference between opinion and fact. — This is where the trolls get in trouble, and unfortunately you see this in sports all the time. “Justin Verlander isn’t as good as he used to be,” or “Team USA obviously has no chance in winning the World Cup, YOU IDIOT,” are common examples of opinions that are written as though they are facts. It gets even worse when you get into politics. “Raising taxes hurts the economy,” is an opinion, as is “Banning guns would cut the incidences of shootings.” There is some evidence to back up both of those claims as well as evidence to the contrary, but either way those two statements are opinion and not fact. Make sure you understand the difference, and consider each statement before you make assumptions.
3. Beware of anecdotal evidence. — “Go around and talk to people; you’ll see what’s going on.” You hear these all the time, and this should be dismissed immediately. Your teacher in second grade probably debunked this with the telephone game experiment but you STILL hear this example repeated in adult life all the time without question. These are known as “person who” fallacies.
Anecdotal evidence is flawed because it relies on individual perception. Low information people use this as a persuasive tactic all the time, often shouted because they think that makes it more true. Eyewitness testimony has lately become considered unreliable in court cases because memory is so easily manipulated; the Innocence Project claims that 75% of overturned verdicts were convicted based on eyewitness testimony. If someone “has a friend” or a “person they talked to,” ask them to skip the story and provide you with hard evidence. If it’s a blog, move on.
4. Ask a lot of questions. — Most internet nonsense falls apart after a few questions. I’ll give you an example that you’ve probably heard before: “I was in the checkout line at the grocery store yesterday and I saw a woman pay with a Bridge Card (or food stamps). Then in the parking lot I saw her loading her groceries into a Benz!”
The fact that you’ve probably heard this story dozens of times before (or one of the many variations) should itself call into question its accuracy. The next time you hear it, ask the following questions: “What if she borrowed the car?” or “What if she was using someone else’s Bridge Card?” You’ll find that the story falls apart because no one is that interested in the endeavors of others. No one in their right mind spends time in a checkout aisle watching how someone pays and then follows them into the parking lot to see what kind of car they get into. If you’re in a grocery store, you’re probably like most people: trying to get out of there as soon as possible so you can get back home.
When you’re asking questions, you might find that the person you’re asking might get a little annoyed when you start questioning them. This is good. Now you’re having a substantive debate. If the person tries to bail out of your questions, or they curtly say “I’ll send you some links on that,” you should be highly skeptical of everything they say.
5. Question your beliefs. — Abraham Lincoln, famous for changing his mind, once said, “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Never set your beliefs in stone. Challenge your deeply held beliefs to rigorous testing. Find someone whom you disagree with and read everything they’ve ever written. Feel more comfortable with the scientific method? State a hypothesis and seek to disprove it. You’re reading this on the internet, so you have access to the most powerful informational tool in all of human history. Use it!
6. Turn to history. — Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it, and don’t let yourself fall victim. Someone promising you a tonic that will improve your “energy” or clear out your “toxins”? Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the sketch of the medicine man standing on his horse drawn cart? Someone promising you an investment that will never lose money? Scam artists seldom have anything new to say.
The same goes for hysterias, they often follows similar tropes. Early this year, there were numerous reports on something called “The Knockout Game.” Many outlets breathlessly repeated its name as the latest danger to people who dwell in cities. Those who keep an eye toward history noticed that it sounded a lot like the media hysteria from the 80s, which was at the time called “wilding,” which was at its apex during the Central Park Jogger case in New York City. The anti-vaccine movement has been at the around lately, but it certainly isn’t new, arguably even before vaccinations themselves. For centuries small groups of the population in many countries have convinced themselves that immunizations are bad, until a swift epidemic sweeps through and kills a few dozen of their children before they change their tune. We’re already seeing that with CDC recently classifying whooping cough as an epidemic in California.
Do those six steps mean you’ll never get scammed? Nope, but its a good start. Friends and family might shake their heads and disapprove. They might call you a spoilsport or cynic, but you’re just not willing to join the herd in the gallop off the cliff. Understand that you’re not an expert, and it’s better to wait a few weeks before you charge into any direction. Skepticism is healthy; listening and reading are more constructive than talking and writing; there is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something.