An article titled, “Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado on First Day of Legalization” was published by the Daily Currant January 2, 2014. Since then, it has been tweeted 9,230 times and “liked” on Facebook 1.5 million times.
Did you catch that? It was liked on Facebook 1.5 million times! MILLION!
Why does this matter? Because the article was fake. It was a phony. It was completely made up. Fabricated. In short, it was BS.
But many saw the headline and quickly read through the story believing it to be real news. And out of the million plus people who shared the article, there were quite a few who were in positions of power and responsibility who decided it would be a good source to use to support their position regarding drug use and weed.
Just one month after the article and been posted online, Annapolis, Md., police chief Michael Pristoop cited the article as evidence to support his argument against decriminalizing marijuana while testifying before the Maryland legislature, Forbes reported. Yes, the person responsible for the safety of Annapolis actually cited a fake news story as evidence. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one to do this.
Across the globe, Sweden’s justice minister, Beatrice Ask, also used the same article as support for her argument against drug use. According to The Guardian, she even posted a link to the article on her Facebook page with the comment, “Stupid and sad. My first bill in the youth wing was called Outfight the Drugs! In this matter I haven’t changed opinion at all.”
What is truly stupid and sad is that a person responsible for passing bills can’t tell the different between fact and fiction. Scary, ain’t it?
The fake lethal marijuana article first came to my attention because a Facebook friend had posted it on her wall with her comments about the “evils” of drug use and as support for her argument against the legalization of mary-jane.
Because I am naturally suspicious of anything spread through social media, I went straight to the source to verify its credibility. It literally took me less than 60 seconds to find that my suspicions were correct. The article was a completely fabricated hoax. How did I find this out so quickly?
It’s really quite simple…I looked.
The thing that really pisses me off though is the fact that so many people are so easily tricked. And these are the same people we depend on to make important decisions! To raise children! To vote!
If I were a lesser human being with no integrity, I would take this as a sign to run for office. Alas, I have too much of a conscience to manipulate the masses.
There is absolutely no excuse for the ease to which people allow themselves to be suckered. This is especially important for researchers who are trying to find evidence to support their claims. Yes, researchers include you, the everyday Joe as well as you, the average student. So, beware! Just because it’s on the Internet, does NOT mean the information is reliable!
You needn’t be a student to understand the importance of finding reliable sources. There is so much crap being circulated amongst the ignorant these days online. Every single day, someone who is amenable with the popular story of the day will passively pass it on without even thinking twice about whether or not the information is actually true.
Why should you care though? This is why. Passively passing around BS fake news stories is contributing to the continuing dumbing down of our nation. How can we expect to make informed decisions regarding, well anything, if we can’t even tell fact from fiction? If you’re not double checking the stories you come across for accuracy, then you are a huge part of the problem.
In a nutshell, you need to know how to tell fact from fiction. And if you’re one of those people who got duped by the marijuana story, then I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you just proved that you really don’t know how to tell fact from fiction. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you do know how; perhaps you just don’t care or are too lazy to check.
I ask that you be a part of the solution instead of the problem. No. I beg you. Please try and actually pass along information that is correct and useful. Need help in figuring it out? Then read my suggestions on how to sniff out the BS when reading online news and doing online research.
1. Check out the original source’s “About” page.
Going back to the marijuana story, The Daily Currant’s “About” page is very clear on whether or not their stories are credible. The Q&A below is directly from their website.
Whether you are looking at a website published by an individual person or by a large organization, you must look at the “About” page in order to help determine whether that person or organization is a credible source of information on the given topic. Is this person/organization a recognized expert in the field? Or are you reading just another rant from another random blogger? In this case, the website clearly states that its stories are not real, rather they are “purely fictional.”
And if the website doesn't even have a page that explains the author’s or organization’s background, then that tells you right there it is NOT a website you should take seriously.
2. Look to see how the author or organization might benefit from providing certain information on their website. For example, if an author has written an article in support of a particular business, is that person receiving any kickbacks? What is the reasoning for this person to write the article? Is this person known to be objective? Or does this person always advocating just one viewpoint? Does the organization have an agenda like spreading hate and discontent?
For example, I wouldn't recommend you use the website www.martinlutherking.org as a source if you’re writing a paper on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you don’t take the time to find out why, then you’re allowing yourself to be manipulated with misinformation. And if you use the information provided on this website, then you’re guilty of spreading misinformation.
This particular website does not have an “About” page, but it does provide a link to the host of the website. A quick click on the link to the host shows us this:
That’s right. The website that is providing information about Dr. King is actually hosted by a white supremacist group. Any reasonable person should be able to understand that the information on the website is most likely not unbiased and objective because it is sponsored by an organization with a clear agenda.
Remember though, just because a person or organization tends to advocate a certain point of view doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have credibility. It just means that if you want to have a broader perspective of a topic, then you need to find more sources that are more objective or at least multiple sources from multiple points of view to try to come to an objective conclusion yourself.
3. Is the website a Wiki? A wiki is a website that allows multiple people to edit the content. The problem? Well, you have to ask yourself, who are these people and how do they know? What are their qualifications that make them experts on the topic they are editing? Would you go to a plumber for advice on how to fix a faulty electrical outlet? Probably not if you want to avoid being electrocuted to death. Would you go to a car mechanic for advice if you’re sick with the flu? Um…me thinks not.
So, why in the hell would you consider just any random person’s input to a website as valid information?
Probably the most well-known wiki website, Wikipedia, currently has more than 4.5 million articles in English alone. Although that’s a lot of information, even the website itself provides a general disclaimer that “Wikipedia makes no guarantee of validity.” If you can’t take the information provided to be valid, then why would you want to use it as evidence for a research paper or for a persuasive speech? You wouldn't!
4. Is the article recent? When was the last time it was updated? Timing is everything in our fast-paced, information-rich world. Things change fast now that we can look up information in “real-time.” Make sure that whatever information you’re getting off of the Web is in fact, the most recent information available. Otherwise, it could be incorrect.
When you do a search online, the results will allow you to sort by date. Be sure to look for the most recent stuff first and then work your way back.
These are just four very easy ways to double check the credibility of the articles you read every day online and through social media. Just because the website ends with a “.com” or an “.org” doesn’t mean it is automatically a credible source of information. Spend just a little extra time learning about the person or organization sponsoring the information on the site before taking the information at face value.
Oh, and if you saw it on social media? I would just assume it is BS until your digging proves otherwise.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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