Truth, lies and social media: 300 Seconds Brighton

Last night I spoke at 300 Seconds in Brighton. It was a great experience – while I’ve done a bit of public speaking, I find it terrifying and really struggle with anxiety. Two things made speaking at 300 Seconds easier for me:

  1. The mentoring session before the event – I got some useful suggestions for dealing with my nerves, and some reassuring feedback on the content of my talk.
  2. The supportive, friendly atmosphere on the night, from the organisers, the other speakers and the audience.

It was really great to see how people’s talks progressed between the mentoring session and the event – they were good at the mentoring session, but fantastic on the night.

My slides and a few notes are below.

I’m interested in truth, lies and social media and how they intersect. I’m interested for two reasons: firstly because I work in content and social media, and secondly because I’m easily deceived.

Mark Twain is said to have coined the phrase ‘A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’

It’s a great saying, but in a case of life imitating art, Twain actually didn’t say it first. It’s older than he is.

If lies and misinformation travelled fast in Twain’s day, and one hundred years before,  think how fast can they travel now.

This problem is exacerbated by how we consume content. Our attention spans are tiny, but we share more than ever. Tony Haile from Chartbeat, a measurement company, recently said that they’d found now correlation between reading and sharing, and at Upworthy, they see a peak in sharing when people have only read 25% of the content on the page.

How often do you really think before you share? About whether it’s true and what the consequences might be?

So often the things we share without thinking are simple, harmless fun.

But sometime’s it’s more serious. People deliberately plant misinformation online, and on Twitter in particular, with campaigns like #EndFathersDay, #WhitesCantBeRaped, Operation Bikini Bridge, Operation Freebleeding, and #cutforbieber, designed to mislead people and in some cases, pit them against each other. (For more on this, take a look at #yourslipisshowing)

When you repeat a lie enough, people start to think it’s true. People think that the Great Wall is the only manmade object that can be seen form space, but the truth is you can’t really see it at all from space (unaided at least).

It might be harmless when it’s something like whether you can see a wall from space, but other kinds of misinformation have real-life consequences. Thanks to repetition of misinformation, and that we often accept things as true without checking the facts, we have a really skewed perception of reality. An ipsosMORI poll for the Royal Statistical Society & King’s College London found that people think 28% of the population are single parents – it’s actually 28%, or that 24% of the population are Muslim when it’s actually 5%. I don’t think it’s a huge jump to connect this with our recent election results.

Howard Rheingold, the critic, writer, and teacher and advocate for digital literacy encourages people to work on their powers of ‘crap detection’. Some good questions to ask help you cut the crap might be: Even if it seems harmless, ask:

  • do you know who wrote/said it? Can you trust them?
  • is this fact or opinion?
  • what’s their motivation for writing/saying it?
  • what’s the source? Does another independent source verify it?

If you’re not sure about any of these, either don’t pass this information on, or frame the information in such a way that people know it might not be a fact.

Finally, don’t take my word for it – this is something I’m interested in, but I’m by no means an expert. There are lots of resources that can help you sort the lies from the truth and the gold from the crap – take a look at my slides for a list.



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