I am a social media professional. And as hard as I try not to, I occasionally get sucked into a story that has me believing and sharing it with my friends. This one makes me mad, this one makes me sad, this one makes me happy and this one makes me… disappointed as hell. Such was the case with the recent “Boy Dies in Santa’s Arms” story. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
I read the story and I watched the interview. How could it not be true? It started from an actual media outlet and was shared by other media outlets. I mean, come on, it’s Santa! Crying! How could this NOT be true!?! Days later, the story began to unravel as the media actually got around to gathering facts asbout the story and found that it had many gaping holes. It turned out that no one seemed to know the boy or the family mentioned in the story. No one saw Santa in the hospital and even Santa himself could not seem to remember the date of the sad day, which really blew it for me. How can you remember every name of every boy and girl in the world — but forget the day that one of them dies in your arms.
The “Gotta Be First” Syndrome
As amazing as social media is for connecting people and creating relationships and conversations, the immediacy of it has created the biggest problem in the world of media and news; the “Gotta Be First” Syndrome.
When a story breaks over the police scanner, or is called-in by a frantic bystander, the news agencies of the world begin the mad scramble to be first in the social stream with the story. It doesn’t matter if the story or info they are providing is true, as long as it’s posted on social before the other guys. Whatever mistakes are made, they can be corrected in the hours and days after the story unfolds, right?
Take a recent incident at Ohio State University. Even with reporters on the ground, choppers in the sky, and social media consumers all around the campus, the first information to hit the news feed said “Active Shooter Incident at Ohio State.” For the first few hours I went through the various feeds (thanks to EchoSec) from the growing number of students and media personalities “live and on-scene” throughout the campus.
The problem was, at no time was a gun or gunshots from the suspect ever mentioned. The police never heard anything about a shooter having a gun. The students closest to the incident never heard, and never saw, a gun. So where did the “active shooter” detail come from? Ah. There it is. As the students scrambled for safety, someone tweeted a question about a possible shooting incident and VOILA — Active Shooter.
Eventually the media outlets were able to establish that the active shooter was actually a student with a knife. The media narrative then quickly changed from the earlier, poorly researched broadcast to a more detailed account about the Muslim man responsible (followed by the inevitable “is he a terrorist?” angle).
Inciting the Mob
In Canada, right now, one of the biggest fake news narratives out there is the phenomenon of the “Creep Catchers.” These self-professed “protectors of our children” have created a storyline that portrays hundreds, if not thousands, of pedophiles, actively lurking online in dating chat rooms, looking for underage teens to prey on (yes, you read it right — dating sites).
The Creep Catchers’ process of baiting, luring, and ambushing suspected child predators, then splashing their faces all over social media with videos of the ambushes (NSFW) and screenshots of chat logs, has made their following legion. This following is so enraptured with this narrative that anyone questioning the validity of the “catches,” or claims, will be subjected to an onslaught of online vitriol, harassment and bullying.
This group’s hyperbolic fake news tells a story of more than just an event or an issue. It has created a linear focus that encourages their online following to be the judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion — with the guilt of the target never being in question. A never ending supply of half-truths, unverifiable statistics and conveniently omitted tidbits of information that might place reasonable doubt in the hands of the viewers, all lead to being able to get exactly the audience they want; one that will continue to feed their machine with likes, views, comments and ego pumping accolades.
Finding the Truth
It has become increasingly hard to know what is true and what is not. Something you totally believe one day is proven to be an utter hoax the next. So how do we get sucked in? Simple. We want it to be true.
Think about it — the last thing a dying boy sees is Santa, holding him in his arms? Of course we want that story to be true. Sadly, the constant diet of fake news means that we must be much more skeptical of what we see and read online. Using an old consumer warning, “buyer beware,” we need to look at that which tugs at our emotions or taps our beliefs, with a more skeptical eye. After all, the less we believe and share fake news, choosing instead to research and verify before we post, the quicker we starve the creators of what they need — us.