A Few Thoughts on Social Responsibility: Beware When You Share

My cousin Kim asked a great question yesterday regarding a post she shared on Facebook. She asked why people would make things up share them when they could be eventually caught. This is something I have thought about in a larger context. So, Kim, here are some of my thoughts.
Why would someone share something that they’ve made up and can be pretty easily found caught for being a fraud?

This has been a big issue of mine for quite some time and I wanted to delve a little deeper into this.

First, let’s look at why. Everything we do in life has a reason behind it. I go to work to make money to support my family. My kids go to school in hopes they’ll have more career options. My grandson watches Thomas the Tank Engine because he likes trains. People watch infomercials because they can’t believe how some products can really be.

So, for someone that makes stuff up online like this, they must have a reason. I suspect it’s to see how many likes or shares they can get, but I am sure there can be other incentives as well beyond that.

Now, let’s look at HOW they do it.

They typically post something that’s false but tugs at the heart strings. This could be about outrageous animal cruelty, a sick or dying child, an abused or abducted child or a missing person perhaps.

We see our friends sharing this and a lot of people click the Share button without really considering it. Why do we share it? Again, there must be a reason we do. I think it boils down to two things:

  1. we feel like we are helping; and
  2. we feel what harm can it do?

The problem is, if we share something that is false, both of these incentives are wrong. We are not helping anyone and we may actually be causing harm.

For example, of the hundreds of viral hoaxes that make their way around Facebook you have probably seen the Amber Alert issued on a grey truck with a certain Quebec license plate. Sometimes the color changes, but the license plate from Quebec is usually the same. Though this seems legit, it’s completely false. Every-so-often it starts making the rounds on Facebook and every time it does I feel sorry for anyone in Quebec that happens to be driving a vehicle like that… I imagine the calls the police get of reports of a vehicle matching the description tying up their time.

Another example are the photos of the parents with sick or dying children. Usually it will go something like, “poor child is dying, for every like, share or comment, Google/Microsoft/Apple/Facebook will donate $1 to the family”. First, no company would EVER tie help for a sick or dying child to a marketing campaign. It would be corporate suicide. Could you imagine the headlines? “Microsoft let little girl die because they didn’t get enough LIKES on Facebook”… any story that ties likes, comments or shares to donations is almost positively 100% false. So, if these are false, what’s the harm? Well, suppose that child in fact does die. The parents will see their child’s image circulating on Facebook for years, think about the mental anguish they will face. That’s just sad.

Lastly, what about posts about a missing person? Two weeks ago, I saw a share from a friend about a young man that went missing. It took 2 minutes to Google his name to find out that he was indeed missing, 2 years ago and was found the next day. That means this poor kid’s face has been going around Facebook for the last two years. Even though he was safe and is living a normal life, he has to deal with this shadow hanging over him of the strangers that know his face and think that he’s missing.

How do you know if something is real or not?

First, look for tells… those little signs that should trigger an alarm in your head. These include:

  1. A post that uses guilt to get you to share something. Example: “Most
    of your won’t care enough to share this but…”
  2. A post that claims volume of shares, likes or comments will help a
    situation beyond social awareness. Example: “Help this dying child
    by sharing this…”
  3. A post about a missing person, especially if they are from far away.

If you get past these 3 and you’re not sure, just Google it. Use details that could be unique about a situation such as a child’s name for an Amber Alert, a driver’s license number, the name of a family or child. There are a few really good web sites out there that debunk a lot of these hoaxes and frauds and give you the actual story.

We are in a precarious time in our history. The internet has connected us all, for good and for bad. We need to be especially careful of what we share of our own lives (personal information for example), but what we also share from our friends.

One aspect of this is the idea of social justice. We have come to the point that if we see something on line we tend to believe it. Imagine if Anonymous, the internet group of hackers that promote social justice, had released the names of the four boys related to the Rehtaeh Parson’s case. They may or may not be guilty of the crimes that some have accused them of, I am not a judge or jury. But if Anonymous had released their names, they would be considered guilty by the social masses without even having had a trial. This is super dangerous. If it’s in a newspaper, a community gets angry, if it’s online, the reach is much further. I would be concerned for the safety of these boys. We are supposed to be found guilty by a judge or jury, not by the court of public opinion.

Sharing on the internet can have some pretty serious consequences. I think we have a social responsibility online, especially on Facebook, to be careful of what we share. Before I share anything on Facebook, I ask myself, is this legit and is it fair?