Monthly Archives: October 2014

From satire to hoax to incitement: Ebola on the Web

#IAmALiberianNotAVirusIn a post last week, I opened up the subject of differentiating satire from hoax in the era of Facebook shares and careless posts seen by millions.

I cited a fabricated story about Michele Bachmann that fooled many of the most popular progressive sites: a combination of weak (or outright deceptive) satire and a lack of due diligence that’s repeated again and again, to the detriment of our intellectual integrity.

Pretty sleazy stuff, but we have to descend another several circles of Hell to gaze on some of the intentionally false content about the Ebola virus that’s made the rounds the past week.

If you accept the notion that these pieces are somehow satire, the objects are immigrants from the West African nation of Liberia. (Liberia is one of the countries most affected by the disease.)

If you consider these stories provocation, Liberians are potential victims.

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The myth of false equivalency

scalesThis is the story of my first and last brush with campus activism during my college career. It’s been decades, so some names may be slightly askew — but the sequence of events is still crystal clear.

I crossed paths with 1960s counterculture often as a tot, and I’d always romanticized the activism it inspired. So when I entered college, I was eager to man the ramparts for social justice.

A cause of the moment was registration for the draft, which had been reinstated in 1980 by Jimmy Carter. Like any aspiring young progressive I knew, I was opposed to registration as a half-step away from conscription. (I’ve long since tempered that opinion; I now believe that conscription is a potent tool to make the powerful think twice about committing their own children to war.)

At the time, however, it seemed like a righteous cause to start my career as a student activist. So I was excited to attend the first meeting of a group called (IIRC) Students Against Registration and the Draft and attended by about 30 of the most visible leftist students on the UCSD campus.

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Satire or hoax? Let’s draw a line

Michele BachmannMy last post here took a first pass at what’s so wrong with so many of the online stories posing as news. In last week’s episode, I focused on the vanishing practice of calling people to verify or debunk the supposed meaning of the event described.

This week, I’d like to consider the intentional creation of falsehoods for dissemination online. Many assertions that readers share widely as fact turn out to be distorted or made up entirely.

Are the authors actually trying to deceive readers? Or do they intend to make points through satire, only to have their words taken at face value when the context is lost in transit?

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Reach out and shake someone

Muslim Day Parade 2014, New York.By most metrics, I spend far too much time on Facebook — which of course means I think it’s just enough.

I consider my posts there “pencil shavings”: scattered puns, absurdism and issues that quickly capture whatever’s crossed my mind. Questions I ask about politics or culture often kick off lengthy debates among interesting people. They may bottom out in angry stalemates or fall victim to Godwin’s Law, but I find they help me work through what’s bugging me most about the issue.

One topic I come back to again and again is a type of content that Facebook eats up: flawed stories that gain momentum through shares and likes, usually with a strong political bias, usually repeated by like-minded sites, usually anecdotal, sometimes invented under the guise of satire but repeated as truth.

Whether they’re on Breitbart.com or Daily Kos or sites that are smaller and/or even sloppier, there’s more wrong with these stories than I can cover in one post. So I’ll concentrate on a simple journalistic skill that seems to have been forgotten in the era of reporting on others’ reporting: picking up the telephone and calling primary sources.

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I am curious (Ello)

ello logoOdds are this post will seem anachronistic six months from now, but I’m still excited about the flash of interest in social-media upstart Ello, inspired in large part by Facebook’s continued incomprehension of some sociological fundamentals.

As I’ve noted in a few forums, Ello has picked up new accounts started by tech-savvy users, people who use stage names and other pseudonyms, and even news sites in the wake of a dust-up over Facebook’s draconian enforcement of its real-names policy to exile drag queens and other users who employ monikers other than their birth names (disproportionately targeting the LGBT community).

Facebook VP of Product Chris Cox last week ran a post apologizing for the crackdown and attributing it to one user reporting hundreds of drag performers. While the rules will remain the same, Cox wrote, the company will apply them with more sensitivity.

Cox’s assurances may have worked. (And I actually believe he’s being honest in his dismay about the unintended consequences of Facebook’s rules and the company’s wish to do better.) Anecdotally, I’m now seeing less interaction between users I’m following and Ello’s admittedly Spartan feature set. 

But I’m still rooting for Ello to persevere, both because I’m enjoying the adventure of a new platform and the opportunity to think hard about Facebook’s critical mass in social media. Whatever Cox and Facebook consider the spirit of company policy, the letter remains very restrictive — and its enforcement hinges on enabling any user with any agenda to derail the account of another with a single confidential complaint.

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