How Not To Look Stupid on Facebook & Twitter

By Richard Cameron 

The very fact that you are reading this article, virtually eliminates you from the gene pool of people who betray their ignorance on Facebook and Twitter. You should be greatly relieved and gratified. Why do I say this?

In the main, if nothing else, you are part of a small, elite group of individuals who actually read a linked article before they comment on it. Most do not. A great deal of Facebook resembles an intellectual WalMart.

If there is enough of a hint as to the nature and even the perspective of an article – and there must be for search engine optimization (SEO)  –  most Facebookers will arrive at a conclusion concerning the piece and react to it without the benefit of actually knowing what facts have been outlined. Consequently, without facts that may be critical to a proper understanding of a subject, the commenter reveals him or herself as someone to whom a satisfying opinion is of infinitely greater value than reality based knowledge.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”   – Francis Bacon

How many times have you seen a report, article, story or column linked in social media and immediately the resident sharks will smell blood in the virtual water, because it is an affront to their opinion – or they will alternately fawn about the link, because it comports with their pre-conceived notions and biases?  If you are among those who spend much time looking at political or culturally divisive content threads on Facebook, you have seen a great deal of it.

The bookend to this are people who link material they have encountered elsewhere without having read it or fact checking it even to the slightest degree. It sounds good – therefore it must be good and it might even be true, but that is of secondary importance, because even if it isn’t true, shouting it from the rooftops will mutate it into popular wisdom.

That this is endemic, is evidenced by the exponential growth and reach of clickbait sites during the recent presidential election. We learned that accurate information never crossed the finish line first, when in a race with material that most often was patently false but infinitely more entertaining or pandering.

Writing in the New York Times, Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman point out that, “Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet”, to which Huff Po’s Washington bureau chief, Ryan Grim concurs, saying, “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.”

What is true for content providers is also true for those who disseminate material based on rumor, hoax or fiction – sharebait.

At this point it might be valuable to briefly touch on one of the core reasons people react with approval or disapproval to information they have not examined. It has to do with the emotional investment you have made with a particular view or belief you have adopted. As David McRaney, writing in “You are not so Smart” describes it:

You seek out safe havens for your ideology, friends and coworkers of like mind and attitude, media outlets guaranteed to play nice. Whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations which may cause harm to those beliefs.

Scientists in the study of social behavior refer to it as confirmation bias. This instinct accounts for why people with rigid ideologies, particularly people who occupy the extremes on either the left or right, happily dwell in safe echo-chambers.

If someone or some content appears that threatens this, they are seen as intruders and dismissed as “trolls” or worse. I won’t say that what I am describing is more a right vs. left affliction or vice versa. These tendencies cover the spectrum – but are more prominent, as I said, on the fringes.

That people do this is not difficult to understand and it is something that is part of all of us to a degree. Even so, it speaks better of one’s intellectual honesty not to draw conclusions on or from material they only presume they understand.

How much less sense does it make to go on a rant about something you haven’t even read?

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One thought on “How Not To Look Stupid on Facebook & Twitter

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  1. Danke Danke for writing this. I was trying to remember that term “confirmation bias,” and yeah, that’s a big issue. Too many knee-jerk reactions going on and perceived slights…and you can’t interrupt a perfectly created snit-fit for the sake of clarification and truth. You’ll steal their thunder and they’ll ignore you anyway because they were justified in their feelings for a few moments. Ugh.

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