Be wary of information in the social media age

For journalists rarely does a day go by without someone asking, “Is that true?”

They refer to information forwarded to them on their smartphones. It is usually striking, sensational, extraordinary: “Ten people shot dead downtown”; “Former Cabinet minister arrested in the U.S.”; “Cruise ship on fire”; “Haitian sloop with 1,000 Haitians lands in Lyford Cay”.

People receive messages uncritically. They don’t know where it’s from, yet they read it, believe it and share it with others.

At its worst the erroneous information causes panic, defames people, or even causes hostility toward those who have done nothing wrong.

There is an addictive quality to smartphones. Walk into any room. Look at the people. The majority have their heads down playing with their phones. At dinner at a restaurant, same thing. Rather than talking and engaging, each is locked into the mediated world of his or her device.

Smartphones are going nowhere. With increased connectivity and devices becoming more sophisticated, our use will increase. We must learn to be more discerning when it comes to the information sent to us on our devices.

The first question you should ask is “where is this from”. If you don’t know, don’t waste time reading it. Propagandists deliberately create much of the content posted to social media that is sent around on phones in order to misinform. We’ll say that in a simpler way: People make up lies and foolishness to attack other people or to make you think what they want you to think. It’s intended to injure and harm. It’s intended to control your thoughts with someone else’s agenda.

If you don’t know where a message came from, and you don’t know if it’s true, don’t send it to others, especially if it’s damaging to someone’s character. To do so would make you complicit in the offense.

When seeking news and information, read and watch material from credible sources. Old news organizations with reputations of integrity abide by standards. They check and confirm before publishing. They evaluate the newsworthiness of a story before reporting. They publish with concern for standards of decency.

From time to time, old news houses like us get it wrong. But when we do and we are made aware of this we correct the error and try not to make it again.

Stick with reliable sources in this age of information overload. Learn to ignore the noise. Reject unsourced material. Reading, watching and listening to nonsense fills your brain with nonsense. You become a nonsense thinker and speaker if all you consume is the garbage of social media.

And, remember to take breaks. Go to dinner and turn your phone off. Go to the beach without your phone. Watch a movie with a loved one without checking for messages.

Looking people in the eye and talking with them is enjoyable. There is life beyond the screen.

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