Fact or fiction? | ParkRecord.com

Fact or fiction?

Red Card Roberts

By Amy Roberts
Park Record columnist 

I'll be the first to admit I spend far too much time online. A good portion of it is job related: I'm responsible for knowing what is trending and being able to respond to it; both in this opinion column and in my real, "big girl" job.

Aside from my profession, social media is also a way for me to connect with people who share similar interests, get involved in causes I care about, and, at least in my experience, it's been a valuable tool for coping with the loss of my sister. Many times I've felt comforted after reading a blog post on grief, realizing I am not alone and learning how others have survived it.

But the flipside of having heaps of information available at our fingertips is that there is also heaps of misinformation available. Another side effect is how rapidly both information and misinformation spreads.

I've seen people I've known and respected for years share links to "news stories" captioned with any number of the following:

When we check out at the grocery store and see The National Enquirer resting next to Time Magazine, most of us know which one is entertainment and which one is information.

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"I don't know if this is true or not, but…"
"Why isn't mainstream media reporting on this?!"
"Can you believe this is happening?"

In short, the answers are:

"If you don't know if it's true or not, don't share it."
"Because it didn't actually happen."
"If you think that's bad, check out this post from the same source: We're being invaded by killer lambs and the government isn't doing anything about it!"

Until recently, I was never really concerned about fake news. I just assumed most rational Americans could decipher the difference. When we check out at the grocery store and see The National Enquirer resting next to Time Magazine, most of us know which one is entertainment and which one is information. But somewhere in the recent past, we've paused to lend credibility to historically non-credible outlets, and as such, we are more divided, confused and manipulated than ever before. And ironically, the same people who decry mainstream media as "fake news" find it entirely acceptable to share something from Alex Jones, an Internet conspiracy theorist who has called the Sandy Hook massacre a government hoax to advance gun control.

Think about the repercussions this same strategy would have in a different field. If, for example, there was suddenly a huge distrust of oncologists because people without medical degrees or any clinical training had started to convince cancer patients that mainstream oncology is fake and not to be trusted. And as a result, many of those cancer patients started seeking treatment from witch doctors who insisted all they need to do is drink grasshopper blood and they'll be cured. The only thing that would come of this is more people dying from cancer and a lot fewer grasshoppers. And while the scenario sounds crazy to the rational, it is essentially what is happening to our news and information, and as such, our country.

People who have never won a Pulitzer, or sat in a newsroom, or had an editor demand a two-source fact check, or have never even taken a journalism course, are calling themselves members of the media. They set up a Facebook page and wham, they're a news outlet. They get a few thousand followers, and suddenly, they're influencing politicians and policy. And that is a threat to our democracy.

The important thing for us to remember is that just because we don't agree with a news story, doesn't mean it's fake. We need to be cautious of an impulse to assume something is true because the headline confirms what we want to be true. Additionally, just because an organization gets a story wrong, doesn't mean it's fake. Credible news outlets correct their errors and don't have a consistent track record of getting it wrong.

And, people who truly want to be informed, who are genuinely interested in the truth, don't believe everything they see on the Internet. Abraham Lincoln said that.

Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.