Don’t Be Fooled by Viral Stories
In an age when so much (mis)information floods the Internet, it’s easy to be guilty of sharing something that is totally false. How can we avoid this?
“It had all the right ingredients to stir up Web outrage,” writes Doug Gross of CNN.
Marine Corps veteran and openly homosexual waitress Dayna Morales told media outlets (including CNN) that her customers, a family of four, refused to tip her and left a note saying, “I’m sorry but I cannot tip because I do not agree with … your lifestyle and how you live your life” (“2013: the Web’s Year of the Hoax,” CNN.com, Dec. 18, 2013).
Only after waves of angry online posts and thousands of dollars of sympathy donations received in support, did the story prove to be false.
The family produced its receipt and a credit card statement proving they’d tipped Morales—and fairly, at that.
Nevertheless, the story went viral so quickly that many people were fooled. Why?
“Media experts say there are multiple factors at work when these sweet little lies rocket across the Web in what feels like mere minutes,” Mr. Gross explains. Besides the fact that many are simply “too good to be true,” he says that the phenomenon has a business side, with some websites out to find such stories and exploit them to get the most Internet attention.
The article cites Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Upworthy as examples of these “virality” sites.
Most of us have been fooled by a viral email that told a story that was either so horrifying, inspirational or revealed such an injustice that we had to forward it on to our friends or share it on social media, only to find out later that it was almost totally untrue.
The Internet is not only a haven for rampant personal fraud, but also for fake scientific studies, erroneous news articles, biased political slams and dubious conspiracy theories. How can we avoid being fooled in such a pervasively viral culture?A viral culture
The Internet is not only a haven for rampant personal fraud, but also for fake scientific studies, erroneous news articles, biased political slams and dubious conspiracy theories. How can we avoid being fooled in such a pervasively viral culture?
The Bible gives us strong clues. For cases like the waitress’s story, we have the Proverb that says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).
Another Proverb explains, “The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps” (14:15). These and other scriptures throughout the Bible advocate what is today called critical thinking.
A critical thinker deconstructs an argument, problem or story to discover whether its claims can be verified or whether it contains logical fallacies, which are faulty or deceptive lines of reasoning.
Most of all, a critical thinker asks questions: Is this source reputable? What do opponents say? How might the author be biased? Does the story rely on emotion in the absence of fact?
Those who are fooled by the fruits of a viral Internet culture often fail to think critically about what they read, see and hear. How can we avoid believing every word?
Screening for faulty logic
In an attempt to consider well our steps, let’s look at several common logical fallacies that are frequently found in misleading Internet stories.
- False cause.
“Someone got sick after he ate at that restaurant, so it must have poor sanitation practices.” This fallacy assumes a causal connection between things that merely happen together or in sequence. Be wary of studies, charts and stories claiming that two coincidental events or facts necessarily mean a cause-and-effect relationship.
- Slippery slope.
“If this law passes, next thing you know we won’t have any rights!” This fallacy sidesteps addressing an issue by appealing to fear and using extreme hypothetical situations. Think critically about claims that use hypotheticals in place of proof.
- Genetic fallacy.
“Don’t buy from Incredible Mart; they import everything, so it must be low quality.” This fallacy focuses on someone’s or something’s origins. Be careful with claims that lean on negative (or positive) perceptions without offering proof.
- Black and white.
“It basically boils down to this: either you’re with the party or you’re against it.” This fallacy can look like a logical argument, but in casting something as either/or, it rules out other potential perspectives. Think hard about claims that oversimplify a problem.
- Appeal to nature.
“Humans weren’t meant to sit for long periods, so you shouldn’t pursue an office career.” This fallacy argues that something is natural, and therefore inherently good or ideal; it also assumes that whatever is unnatural must not be. Beware this type of argument, which can be an oversimplification.
While the use of fallacious logic doesn’t always mean a claim is wrong (thinking so is itself faulty logic, called the “fallacy fallacy”), a critical thinker recognizes it and becomes accordingly cautious.
Ultimately, it is important for us to strive to be not just critical thinkers, but, even more, biblical thinkers. A person who thinks biblically uses the Bible to prove what is good—rejecting and avoiding what is wrong (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
So before you share or forward that next shocking piece of information—think twice! Think critically and biblically. Wisdom will be the result!