My 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?
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.
Odds 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.
I’ve gotten some compliments lately about the way I work with Millennials — that vague demographic term that (from my perspective) includes adults born since the advent of personal computing.
I like teaming up with these people, and they seem to like me. The ones I meet in professional contexts are smart, enthusiastic and fluent in a language of technology I had to acquire as a young adult. (Granted, I was playing with art and music in high school, not computer kits.)
In the world of startups, Millennials are frequently the founders and big thinkers of the companies I help. I like to see my experience inspire smart people with new ideas, and their insights form a virtuous circle — I often walk away with my synapses snapping.
But there are moments when I think, “I’m a grown-ass man! Why do I feel like I’m applying to Burger King?”