I can’t stress this enough: before you like / share / forward / recommend something online, do the work to make sure that it’s accurate. If it’s not worth the work, then don’t pass it on.
I encountered another case of something shared and re-shared on Facebook that encouraged people to take some kind of action to prevent an unwanted result. (I’m going to avoid specifics so as not be distracted by them. I’m sure you can imagine any number of current and relevant issues.)
The problem? It was both wrong and potentially out of date. The action being taken was ineffectual. The time spent – even just reading it – was time wasted.
Now, normally, that might not seem like such a big deal. I mean, I’ve talked about this with respect to urban legends for decades. This is different. This is more important. In the worst case it can be used against the very things you might care about.
The illusion of doing something
So let’s say you simply take the action – whatever it might be.
Feels good, right? I mean, you did something to help further your cause! Yay you!
Except you didn’t. You feel like you did something, but you accomplished nothing at all. In fact, just the opposite, you wasted your time. Time that could have been spent doing things that might actually make a difference.
This is one of the reasons I typically rail against online petitions; they’re very similar in that they can make you feel like you’ve done something, when in fact the chances are you’ve done nothing at all.
Oh, did you also forward or share it? Then you’ve potentially wasted the time of everyone downstream.
And it gets worse: your good intentions can be used for less-than-good purposes.
Let’s say you’re for “the thing” that everyone is against. You want the thing to happen, so you’d like to come up with a way to distract others from taking actions that might prevent it from happening.
Simple. Give them something to do that sounds like it will accomplish something but in fact will not. Everyone that falls for it will waste their time and be distracted from other actions they might take that might be more effective steps preventing the thing from happening.
Create something that speaks to them, in their voice, and suggest that they take time to take this ineffective action. Share it on social media, email, wherever. Set it free and watch it ripple out, distracting the masses from the real and effective steps that they could otherwise be taking.
You’ve just helped stack the deck in favor of the thing that everyone’s against. They’ll be busy taking ineffective action while you and your cohorts make the thing happen anyway.
Honestly, it’s probably a pretty effective technique, because it leverages two of the most basic human drives:
- the drive to participate and be part of something
- the drive to accomplish a lot with as little effort as possible
Laziness isn’t bad, per se. Many of mankind’s most notable accomplishments have been due to people wanting to do less work to accomplish more. In other words, laziness can drive innovation.
But the fact is that it can also prevent important action from happening. Consider, you’re given two alternatives:
- Quickly sharing something that sounds right, and matches your pre-conceived notions.
- Doing some research to confirm that it’s right, at the risk of having your preconceptions challenged.
Social media thrives on #1. Tons of social media traffic is nothing more than blindly sharing something.
I’m not even going to say that’s bad, in and of itself. Quickly and “blindly” sharing the latest cute Corgi picture isn’t likely to harm anyone, and stands a pretty good chance of bringing a smile to someone’s face.
It’s the more serious issues where things get, well, serious.
And this is what the malicious distractors count on.
It doesn’t have to be malicious
I don’t want this to sound like there’s some conspiracy that’s posting tons of distracting memes and ineffectual calls to action. There might be, of course, but I’m just not a conspiracy kinda guy.
Most of the time this kind of thing is simply misinformed, yet well intentioned. We honestly do want the thing not to happen, so with the best of intent we share and act on something that would indicate a way for us to help prevent that thing from happening.
Quick & easy.
And too often completely ineffectual.
Worse, by preventing us from doing things that would really help prevent the thing from happening, it’s actually harming more than it’s helping.
I’m sorry to say, the solution involves work.
Do the work, do the research
One of the joys of the internet is how easy it’s made it for all of us to create and access information. One of the corresponding frustrations is how easy it’s made it for anyone to create and publish misleading information.
To quote Madge from the old Palmolive commercial: you’re soaking in it.
The antidote is both simple and difficult.
- difficult: take the time
- simple: to do the work
Nine times out of ten it’s actually not that difficult to determine if something it valid. You already have a bevvy of sources you trust at your disposal, I’m sure, but make sure to include sources that challenge you. Checking sources that simply parrot misinformation (the “echo chamber”) is simply more misinformation, not confirmation, and only checking sources that you already agree with (“confirmation bias”) is putting the cart (your assumed answer) before the horse (the more objective question). I actually dove into this in a little more detail in an Ask Leo! article: How Much Can I Trust Information on the Internet?.
Do the work.
Then, once you’ve decided that something is worthwhile, act. Share it if that’s the thing to do, or make the call, or write the letter. If you’ve done even a little bit of homework to confirm that it’s something worth doing, then … it’s probably something worth doing.
Actually, before you do that, consider one more step…
Share your work
If you’ve actually taken the time to do the work and have determined that something is real, consider adding that to what you’re about to share. Add the links to reputable sources, references, citations, or whatever information you found that others can then independently use to more quickly confirm what you’re sharing is accurate.
Do the work so they can do less.
It makes what you’re sharing that much more legitimate, saves everyone time while still allowing for independent confirmation, and increases the likelihood that others will act on it.
It actually increases the chances that your desired action on the thing will happen.
Whatever “the thing” might be.