Breaking the Chain

Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty. 

-Tacitus, Roman Historian (56-120 CE)

With the increasing numbers of people online and the quantity of original and shared content growing exponentially, one could argue that this is a golden age of communication. However, false and misleading information on the internet has effectively derailed public discourse, creating an environment that fosters divisions, threatens institutions, and impedes progress. It is especially disheartening when the originators or disseminators of this content are friends and loved ones. How can we turn the tide?

When I find that my “real friends” (as opposed to high school acquaintances) and family members of my age or younger have posted something false, inaccurate, or misleading, I will let them know privately. I’ll provide them with evidence and ask them to do the right thing and correct themselves. However, when older family members spread misinformation, I have either ignored their posts or provided contradictory evidence without comment. I don’t want to embarrass them publicly or create tensions in our extended family. Clearly, given the scope of the problem, we need to employ more effective strategies. 

In an article entitled, Teaching Older Americans To Identify Fake News Online, Susan Nash argues that older people must realize that misinformation is a form of fraud. Everyone can agree that we need to prevent fraud. Nash suggests that communities start media literacy programs where older people congregate: libraries, community centers, etc. She also adds that we must fund public awareness campaigns and additional research to get the situation in hand. Unfortunately, there are several reasons why that this may not be enough. The same article quotes Stanford longevity expert Laura Carstensen, “our beliefs deepen as we age, and so does our confidence that we are right.” Nash then points to research that older adults both hold on to “mental clutter” and tend to trust their initial impressions, perhaps a form of confirmation bias.

A possible strategy to counter these biases with loved ones would be to talk with them and employ analogous situations from the non-digital world, connecting with their past experiences and the present-day threat of online misinformation and its potential ramifications. I’ve decided to give it a go. Here’s a preview of the conversation I’m going to have with my mother next week:

“Mom, do you remember years ago, when we were living in South Ozone Park, and we got that chain letter in the mail? Lots of folks in the neighborhood got them. The details are a little fuzzy, but you were supposed to make copies of the letter and mail it out to your friends within three days, or else. The letter told of wonderful things that happened to people who followed the rules and the tragedies that befell those who “broke the chain.” It scared the hell out of me. Do you remember what you said? You told me not to be afraid. That it was nonsense. You tore up the letter and threw it away. You broke the chain. I remember telling my friends in school the next day. Some were sure that we were doomed. Others thought you had “real guts.” You were right. Nothing happened; it was a prank. Now I don’t know how many parents came to the same conclusion and ignored that letter. But I know you made a difference for me by turning it into a teachable moment. Truth be told, not all chain letters were that innocent. Some were actual scams, hoaxes, and pyramid schemes, with criminals preying on the naive, the misinformed, and the fearful. 

Now flash forward to today. Hardly anyone sends mail anymore, right? Everything’s online, including the same kind of people who sent out and fell for those old chain letters. Remember the Nigerian Prince emails from 20 years ago? Do you know that this and other cons like it are still running online? How is that possible?

It’s not because we’re dumb. It’s because we are still vulnerable. Social media is a fantastic thing, but like any tool, if used the wrong way, it can cause great harm. That’s why we have to check and double-check everything we post, even if we agree with it. Lies and rumors spread so fast sometimes it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Sure, we want to be first, show that we are wise, or put in our two cents. We have to stop and look both ways before we post anything, just to be safe and keep others safe. There is so much nonsense online, Mom, put out there by people with bad intentions, and it just goes from one person to the next in a chain. It’s up to us to break the chain.”

I may not use those exact words, but that’s my message – oh, I think I’ll end it with an “I love you.” 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *