Digital communication and PR professionals recognize a few truisms about online communication:
- Strong emotions get shared more often on social media.
- People tend to share things they really strongly agree or disagree with.
- Google and Facebook tend to tailor or curate your feeds, giving you more of the stuff you already like, because that’s what we tend to view as more relevant.
- Messages that are easily digestible and meet criteria 1-3 will be more shareable than ones that are not.
In this information environment then, if you want to get your message out, you try to craft something that arouses a strong emotion and is specifically targeted at the audience you want to reach. If you don’t believe me, then think about how Trump’s campaign so masterfully employed Facebook targeting to reach their key demographics. While many still claim that Russian meddling helped to win the election, in reality it was strong, emotional and tailored content that won the day.
Importantly, nowhere in that list is any reference to facts, or veracity of messaging. I hate to break it to everyone, but the reason why it’s not there is because, simply, we don’t care about veracity. Instead people would rather share something that they feel to be true, rather than something that is actually true. It is this kind of indiscriminate social media sharing that led to Pizzagate on the right hand side of the political spectrum, and also led to the wide sharing of the fake Time magazine photo on the left hand side of the political spectrum. We don’t care, or don’t bother to check what is true, because the feeling of righteousness that we get from posting something that proves our point is just so darn satisfying.
Unfortunately for democracy though, this is a real problem. If we can’t trust even our friends will supply us with true information, then we’ll begin to distrust all information, and well, we should. If we distrust all information then we begin to distrust each other, and without trust the fabric of democracy and community begins to unravel. Besides, It’s no way to live. We can’t make democratic decisions on incomplete, biased, or all out fake information. And if we can’t verify WHAT is true, then we risk receding further into communities of like mind in which we only share that which feels true to us, neglecting any alternate versions of reality – even the important and true versions, if they contradict our own.
So what’s the remedy for this information malaise? I think that science can give us a bit of an answer. In statistical testing, you create a null hypothesis, that is to say you argue the opposite of what you think is true, and then you use statistical tests to prove or disprove the null hypothesis. This means if I FEEL something is true, I must first test whether it is NOT true. If it turns out it is not true, then my feelings don’t matter, the fact is that my hypothesis was wrong, and I can move on to the next hypothesis.
We need to take this approach to everything we see on (and we could argue, off) line. If you REALLY FEEL something is true, before you share it, try to find evidence to disprove it. Really look for ways to poke holes in your own argument. Consider the source, try to find primary evidence that supports the claim. In fact, if you REALLY FEEL something to be true, that’s the time to be most critical of it. Be as skeptical as you can, and only if you feel the argument is iron clad should you share it. We actually owe this to each other, because when emotions are high (and we’re most likely to share) we tend to not think clearly. The only way to move beyond PR tactics and digital clickbait is by approaching everything with a critical eye. We can all do this, and we can start today.