Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Modest Apology

Three suggestions for kinder, gentler, more accurate social media posts

Wise words from a man who never said them.
Did you know James Franco is dead? Or that Idaho Governor Butch Otter thinks poor people are genetically inferior? Or that British author Jonathan Swift thinks the solution to world hunger is to eat babies? None of these stories is true, but the first two fake articles from a satirical content producer called City World News made the Internet rounds in the past few weeks and baited more than a few readers. I was one of them. I made the very public and easily avoidable mistake of believing (and worse, tweeting) the story about Governor Otter.

Satire has a long and colorful history, one that has been particularly prominent in the discussion of the tragic terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. While hardly anyone would defend shooting cartoonists, for a surprising number of people, the answer to the question, “Can’t you take a joke?” seems to be “no.” In the case of Governor Otter, I didn’t see the satire, perhaps because I spend a significant portion of my time trying to defend the rights of people that society just doesn’t care about. Many of the real news stories that cross my Twitter feed every day—people with mental illness shot and killed by police, or dying in solitary confinement, or being refused treatment in emergency rooms, or facing the death penalty for actions that were a result of their illness—are true.

Anyway, I screwed up. It was mea culpa, and a few of my friends very kindly pointed out my mistake. But one friend was a little less kind. She wrote: “People who blindly promote satire as truth risk diminishing their own validity.” 

At first, I thought her comment was a little harsh. I mean, I work full time, take care of four kids, and in my so-called “spare” time, I’m buried in dissertation research. You know, too busy to check my sources, right?

Wrong. My friend was right. And the thing is, validity and credibility really matter to me. So here are three suggestions I’ve come up with for myself to ensure that going forward, I tweet more responsibly.

  1. Don’t send late night tweets. When I read the Otter story, it was at the end of a long day. Work was intense. The kids were fun—but exhausting. It’s entirely possible that I was unwinding with a glass of cabernet when I read the outrageous “article” I retweeted without checking my source. I should have turned the phone off when I got home and enjoyed a good book instead. Lesson learned: No more late night tweets.
  2. Always check your sources. As Abraham Lincoln famously did not say, “The problem with Internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.” is my favorite source for fact-checking urban legends. Lesson learned: It takes ten seconds to check a story on Snopes. But if you tweet something that isn’t true, you may look like a fool on the Internet forever.
  3. Be charitable in correcting people who tweet inaccurate information. The challenge with information these days is that it’s moving so fast. My friend’s comment struck me as harsh—but it reminded me that I’ve made similar “You really should have checked your sources” comments in the past on other friends’ posts.  Lesson learned: You don’t always have to be right. Sometimes it’s okay to be kind—to yourself and to others.

We all make mistakes. And though I regret my inaccurate tweet, I don’t regret standing up for the rights of people who are treated unfairly. I’ll continue to tweet about social justice, while following my own advice about slowing down and checking my sources—and hopefully my followers will not feel that my validity and credibility are too tarnished by one mistake. 

(And with respect to Governor Otter and City World News, props to the person who got me to tweet a false story that points at a larger uglier truth! Jonathan Swift would be proud!).


Rebecca said...

I've been looking to either confirm or refute the story about the Idaho governor, but have found precious little, and nothing on snopes. I suspect it's false, because I'm sure multiple outlets would have reported such reprehensible statements had they actually been made. Where did you find your information?

Arlee Bird said...

Yeah, that late night tweeting can result in some embarrassments. Yet that's the time when I feel most inspired to tweet and have time to do so. I guess most tweets are largely ignored anyway so probably not too much harm was done to your credibility.

Tossing It Out

Unknown said...

Otter comes from poverty himself. The real thing, not imaginary. So his comments struck me as extraordinarily strange and I refrained.

marisa1982 said...

Rebecca- the entire website that published the article is a satire site. They provide their own disclaimer.