Sharing in the Misinformation Age

I love Facebook. Practically all my friends live there. I love it so much I'd marry it, if I wasn't already happily hitched to to my husband.

But Facebook also scares the living crap out of me. Not because I worry about my privacy (I'm not that private) or stalkers (I'm not that interesting) or the ads (I'm not that vulnerable).

Facebook freaks me out because of how frequently misinformation is flung around as fact.

I can't count how many of my wonderful, intelligent friends have copied and pasted that "Facebook Doesn't Have My Permission to Use My Stuff" status, which does absolutely nothing other than foment fear in the hearts of other Facebook friends. During the election season, a dizzying array of memes and charts about various candidates crowded my newsfeed like a political factoid parade. And judging by the conflicting nature of many of them, most probably went totally unchecked.

I know how it happens. Someone posts something that appeals to us - most often to our senses of fear and/or righteousness - and we click "Share" without pausing to think about whether we're sure that what we're sharing is true. Or, if we do pause for a split second, we probably think it doesn't really matter if it's totally true. We post it anyway "just in case," or we figure the sentiment is true, even if the content isn't completely accurate, therefore it's worth sharing.

That habit is not harmless. It's wrong, and it's dangerous.

Last weekend, NPR broadcast one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever heard, one that serves as an example of the danger of spreading even the simplest of misinformation. I can't believe this was the first I'd heard of this story (probably because the news agencies were too embarrassed to report it).

As you may recall, in 2009, a 26-year-old woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was shot and killed during the Iranian presidential election protests. Witnesses captured the shooting on their cell phones and posted videos of it on the Internet. Neda quickly became a symbol of the protest, and her photo began circulating the world via the media and social networks as the face of resistance.
 
Only it wasn't her face.

The photo symbolizing the dissent of the Iranian people was actually the face of Neda Sultani, a professor of English literature, who had no ties to Neda Agha-Soltan, and who wasn't a political activist in any way. She hadn't even voted in the election.

In the NPR interview, Neda Sultani described how someone had taken her Facebook profile photo (presumably thinking she was the right Neda) and attached it to stories about Neda Agha-Soltan's killing. The photo spread like wildfire over the Internet and the news. Friends and family began calling her, some bursting into tears at the sound of her voice because they thought she had been shot and killed. In a matter of hours, she became the poster-child for a protest and a movement in which she had taken no part.

Trying to correct the error, Neda Sultani began contacting news agencies. She sent a different photo of herself to CNN to prove that she was telling the truth and that they had the wrong face. The next day, CNN posted that photo as an "exclusive" photo of Neda Agha-Soltan. She said she never received any response, explanation, or apology from CNN.

To make matters worse, when the Iranian secret service got wind of the situation, they tried to use it to their own advantage. They began saying that she actually WAS the woman who was shot in the videos, but that she had faked her own death and that the videos were part of Western propaganda against the Iranian government.   

Confused protesters began accusing her of being an agent of the Iranian government who was impersonating Neda Agha-Soltan to try to sully her name.

Nothing Neda did to try to correct the mistaken identity did any good, and the situation quickly became dangerous for her. So she did the only thing she could - she fled. Within two weeks of the shooting, Neda Sultani was given asylum in Germany and is now living there as an exile.

This innocent woman's life was completely turned upside down. All because of one Facebook photo mixup. And the fact that people spread misinformation blindly.

Seriously, isn't that fascinating? And terrifying? And eye-opening?

So please, those of you on Facebook or other social networks: Think and check and double-check before you click "Share." My friend (and social media guru) Jon Loomer wrote a great post about how to spot a Facebook hoax. Snopes (www.snopes.com) is a great resource for urban legends. Political information can be checked at www.factcheck.org. But even using those sites, I like to make sure at least two reputable sources confirm something before assuming it's accurate. If you're passing along a meme with a quote on it - even if it's just a cute little picture of a kitten or a beautiful sunset - check to make sure the quote is accurate and that it's attributed to the right person. If it's something political, go to the source, then to the opposition, then triple check it.

We cannot use the "innocent until proven guilty" line of thinking when it comes to facts on the Internet. I usually assume something is false (or at least suspect) until proven true beyond a reasonable doubt. I hope you do the same, even with the stuff I write. I try to be accurate, but rewording a story can be tricky, research isn't always 100% reliable, and misunderstandings happen.

We do live in the Information Age. The truth is out there. But it often takes digging through the muck and mire of misinformation to unearth it. Please take the time and effort to do so. None of us wants to live Neda Sultani's fate.

“Each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate the truth himself in order that he may follow the truth instead of blind acquiescence and imitation . . .”  - ‘Abdu’l-Bahá


(For a more complete version of Neda Sultani's story in her own words: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20267989)

Annie blogs at www.motherhoodandmore.com

 

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