Fact or Fiction?
This is a Commentary.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”
Charles Dickens began the novel A Tale of Two Cities with these words in 1859. They could easily apply to social media today.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. In the old days before it, I had to wait six weeks to read a U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Today, I can get a copy of that opinion the minute it is released. It’s the same for any modern court opinion, and the same for any court opinion ever published. I can immediately read any statute, constitution, or legal article with several clicks of a mouse.
I no longer need to take handwritten notes, or spend money and time to make paper copies. I just highlight and save the text I want to quote. I have access to gigantic amounts of information – statistics, science, geography, politics, art, anything I want.
At the same time, I hate the internet. It can’t always be trusted to present facts or be truthful. As Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Unlike spoken information, lies on social media stay out there forever.
Now and then, I try to correct false or misleading material that I come across on social media, especially if it involves legal information. One of my attempts involved a story about how shameful and terrible it was that people who got food stamps were using them at restaurants. How dare they!
The truth is that “food stamps”, correctly called SNAP benefits, can be used at some restaurants. But only in four states, at individually authorized restaurants that serve only elderly, disabled, and/or homeless people at lower than usual prices. And SNAP recipients must have a special card to purchase the food. What a different story the truth is!
Or how about that rumor that Facebook was going to make everything public, but you could stop them by posting a notice that you refused to allow your photos, messages and posts to be part of the public internet. If you posted the notice, Facebook could then be punished by “the law of UCC 1-308-1, 1-308-103 and the Rome Statute.” Sounds serious, doesn’t it?
Guess what? The UCC, or Uniform Commercial Code, is a collection of suggested, not binding, statutes for commercial sales, and has nothing to do with vacation photos. The Rome Statute is the legal framework that set up the International Criminal Court, which deals with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, not privacy on social media.
I could have spent the next 100 years trying to correct misleading posts about food stamps or Facebook privacy, all without success.
All I can do is encourage people to use a fact checker – there are dozens of them out there. Do a search for “reliable fact-checkers” for over one million results. Find one you like and scroll through it if you are tempted to re-post a sensational or outrageous story. You will soon know if the latest outrage is a hoax, partially true or factually true. If you don’t want to use a fact checker, just do a search on your favorite browser. For example, search for “Where can I use food stamps” to get 102,000,000 answers. Or search for “What is the Rome Statute” for 8,000,000 answers.
But please, don’t just read the headline and share.
Gayle Carper is a member of the Macomb City council and she’s a retired attorney and retired Professor of Law at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.
Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.