Looking for Truth On the Internet

Posted by Daniel Braunfeld on April 30, 2013

I believe “truth” is a very noble goal.

Speaking to realities, acknowledging someone’s experience, debunking myths – I believe that being truthful, and seeking the truth, are defining parts of my identity.

Yet in the past month the notion of “truth” has been challenged for me, as I watched current events unfold over social media. The two events I’m referring to could not be more different. The first was an organized, real-time, teen discussion about sexual cyberbullying. The second was in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

In the first incident, teens from around the country, organized by WNYC and Radio Rookies, were openly discussing the concept of “slut-slamming” or “slut-shaming” – when pictures of teens in sexually implicit, or sexually compromising, positions are spread across the internet, turning moments of assumed intimacy into public spectacles. The online discussion asked the audience what teens can do to stop such viral taunting. The conversation took many turns, questioning the motives of the photographer, the willingness of the subject, and the passivity with which people seem to hit “re-post.” But one comment struck me, as the discussion veered towards the recent news of a young woman who committed suicide after being “slut-shamed.” The comment, not directed to this particular victim nor making light of the tragedy, asked why people – who know they are not “sluts” – choose to believe the comments of the online community. “If you know who you are,” the argument went, “then why should their comments matter?” This point can be debated in many different forums and I do not want to go there in this blog. For me, the comment raised another question: when does online content become “true”? Is it instantaneous, upon appearing on the web? Only after a video receives 1 million “dislikes”? What determines the scales of online “truth”?

This question came searing back to mind in the shadows of the Boston Marathon bombing. I was glued to my social media sites just as I was ferociously refreshing my news sources. What did people hear? What did we learn? What happened? Depending on the politics of your wall, we may have seen similar articles – some people assigning blame, issuing warnings of prejudice, calls for equity, messages of hope, efforts to find answers. But the post that I kept seeing was the image of Mr. Rogers telling us to “look for the helpers.” I’m sure you know the picture.

I was struck by this meme, because I had no idea if it was real. What more, I wasn’t sure that it mattered.

Did people find this image helpful because of Mr. Rogers’ smiling face? Were the words alone, “look for the helpers,” enough to give us hope? Did the words gain more meaning, or different meaning, because they were attached to Mr. Rogers’ image? And did Mr. Rogers’ mom ever actually say that? What truth was there in this image, and at the moment, did comfort outweigh truth?

If you haven’t seen this particular meme I’m sure you’ve seen a dozen others. Images of politicians, actors, philanthropists, activists, etc. with a message of hope, sarcasm, inspiration, insult, warning, what-have-you – and they are reposted millions of times. But did Samuel L. Jackson ever really say “that”? Does this text mean more because Hillary Clinton is “there”? Does this quote prove my point because the Dalai Lama might have said it? Or, do we repost these things, consciously suspending belief that the people (theoretically) involved ever uttered these words? Does truth not really matter online, or is truth simply redefined?

I did look up the Mr. Rogers quote, and it does appear, attributed to his mother, in several reputable articles. I admit I have not searched out the quotes of every other meme on my feed.

But I come back to that question posed in the online, cyberbullying discussion. Just because everyone says something online, does that make it true? Does social media need to be used with a caveat about credible and non-credible resources? Or is it enough to simply follow the good advice to “look for the helpers,” even if Mr. Rogers’ mother never actually uttered those words? And if so, how do we help young people determine “truth” online, even if their online community chooses to believe harmful untruths?

Topics: Safe Schools, Social Media, Media Skills, Bullying, Critical Thinking, Facing Technology

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