How Much Do We Trust Social Media?In January, you may have noticed many of your Facebook friends posting a notice claiming to add copyright protection to their updates, photos, and other Facebook content. This wasn’t the first time many users posted the notice; it first popped up in 2012. The problem is that there was no truth to the notice then and there isn’t any now. It was a hoax, and lots of people fell for it. One of the most common falsehoods spread over social media is news of a celebrity death. In a way, it’s probably not a bad thing that people are willing to express their sympathy to the family of the deceased, but, many times, the celebrity in question is just as much alive as Abe Vigoda. One reason we may be so quick to believe these stories without real corroboration is that sometimes social media does break stories before mainstream media. Facebook now offers a way to help its users report, and maybe even cut down on, hoaxes and scams. When multiple users report a news feed story as false, offensive, or otherwise inappropriate, Facebook may add a warning message to the story indicating what others are saying about it. However, the problem isn’t limited to malicious hoaxes. That is Literally Unbelievable At some point, anyone who’s been on social media has seen a friend or contact with a poor sarcasm detector post a link to a story from the satirical publication “The Onion” without realizing the story was satire. In fact, that problem is so widespread that there’s a website devoted to collecting examples of people getting duped by these articles. And once one person posts it to social media, it’s inevitable that someone else will read and believe it, no matter how unbelievable that article might be. The problem gets worse when politics are involved, as perhaps otherwise rational people will apparently believe anything about whichever politicians they don’t like. This got to be so widespread that, last year, Facebook added a “satire” tag to them, and spoiling some of the fun for those of us with more common sense than moral outrage. I Want to Believe Information from the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future’s 2014 Digital Future Report suggests that we’re smarter than this, or at least we claim to be. In 2013, only 14 percent of Internet users said that most or all information posted on social media sites was accurate and trustworthy. For the sake of comparison, 31 percent of respondents said that most or all of the information across the web as a whole was reliable; 71 percent trusted most or all of the information on government websites, and 69 percent believed most or all information posted by established online media. So if we trust our social media friends less than the Internet as a whole, why do we keep falling for these hoaxes? Some genuinely kind souls probably can’t imagine why anyone would spread malicious lies, so they aren’t as skeptical as they should be. Maybe we want to believe these stories because we choose our social media contacts, and we don’t want to think that our “friends” would lie to us, or that we’d choose liars as friends. Maybe we know our friends better than we care to admit, and we shake our heads and say “bless their hearts” under our breath when we see them get fooled. Or maybe—and we really won’t want to admit this—we’re the ones buying and spreading the hoaxes. Image by Sean Macentee/Flikr
Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.