It’s been a wild couple of weeks in the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf in Berlin. Right-wing locals have been protesting along with several neo-Nazi groups against a centre for asylum seekers that has recently been built there. The protests feature the usual neo-Nazi rhetoric, claiming that refugees are social parasites, and that all they want is to exploit our welfare state. Naturally, they demand to send them to whichever hell they came from.
Following the events, German news website Der Postillon published an article about a new study conducted by the Ministry of Economics. According to the website, the study found out that Germany could save up to a hundred billion euros a year if the government started deporting Nazis. The reason: people with a right-wing mind-set are often unemployed, violent and less educated than the average population. “Due to financial reasons, we recommend to deport all Nazis as soon as possible”, the website reported one of the authors of the study as saying.
As soon as the article went online, the comment section of the paper exploded. “Everything they say in the study is true for foreigners as well,” one man complained. “I mean, I don’t have any numbers to prove it, but I think foreigners are also often unemployed, they break laws, and they don’t even speak German”. “You cannot deport your own people,” another smart-ass commented.
Meanwhile, some do-gooders were wondering about the signal the deportation of Nazis would send: “How will our behaviour be different from the Nazis if we use the same methods as them?” one woman asked. Others were simply outraged by the audacity of the proposal: “I’ve always liked you,” someone wrote to the editor, “but this is over now, stupid mainstream media!”
Alas, all this outrage and consideration was in vain. Der Postillon is a satirical publication, like The Onion. All the articles are made up. People would know that, if they Googled the paper and looked at the first few words that describe the website’s content on Wikipedia.
Granted, it’s funny to read these comments, and it can provide you with your daily dose of superiority. But, unfortunately, even very smart people share bullshit too. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.
During pre-election in the US last autumn, a friend of mine sent me an article about Mitt Romney’s wife. Apparently, Ann Romney had defended unequal pay at a meeting with a group called “Moms for Mitt”. The article quoted her with the following words: “Why should women be paid equal to men? Men have been in the working world a lot longer and deserve to be paid at a higher rate.
“Heck, I’m a working mom and I’m not paid a dime. I depend on my husband to provide for me and my family, as should most women.” My friend was outraged (and possibly quite happy about having proven America’s stupidity once again). But the article was fake.
As was the picture that was going around last year, showing a Fox News anchor woman talking about a massacre that was committed at a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse. “Crazy Buddhist madman kills 4 in Toolooz”, the tag on the screen said. The gunman was neither a Buddhist nor was the spelling of the city anywhere near correct – but the picture was all over the Internet before anyone realised it was photoshopped.
Not that I am happy about defending Fox News, but there is simply no news agency in the world that dumb.
So why do these sharing fails happen to the best of us? The answer can be found in the psychological dynamics of the internet. The “share” button is always only a couple of inches away, and with so many topics trending, no one wants to be the last one to publicly have known about something.
Here’s a news-flash: you don’t always have to be the first one to share the latest viral video or picture. Take a couple of seconds to Google where the article or picture or video is coming from. If you can’t confirm its validity by checking sources you trust, don’t share it.
Just wait a day, and then enjoy not being one of those people who has to take yesterday’s post down in order not to seem like a complete idiot.
I remember having dinner with a friend a couple of years ago. “You know,” he said, sometime between steak and dessert, “I don’t read the news any more. I don’t watch television. It’s all a bunch of lies the mainstream media wants you to believe.”
I was listening quietly, mostly because I felt like enjoying the wine rather than explaining to him that no one ever came to my office in the morning to dictate what I write about. But then he dropped the following: “I watched a really good movie recently on the Internet that explains all of this, it’s called Zeitgeist.”
In that moment, I couldn’t help but question his mental abilities. He would rather believe a film full of weird conspiracy theories, made by a guy that no one knows anything about, than experts and journalists all over the world.
Let me assure you once and for all: when we journalists get up in the morning, we don’t have a conference call with all the editors in our country or our Bilderberg overlords. We don’t sit around and decide any liberal mainstream media agenda, what stories we are going to run and which ones we’re going to hide from the public. Even if we wanted to, it would be too damn complicated.
Loony conspiracy theorists will always exist. But let’s not allow the frictionless architecture of the internet to turn us into conduits for their lies, misinformation and plain lunacy.
Because having your prejudices confirmed is a lot less satisfying – at least to my mind – than knowing the truth.