Why do fake posts work? We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. This is a serious problem. But we need to cure ourselves first.
A friend shared a Facebook post: “Steve Jobs last words.” The claim was that on his deathbed, Jobs imparted these wonderful words of wisdom. Jobs never said the words. On Twitter I saw “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” attributed to Ben Franklin. Ben never said that. And then came Einstein’s quote, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Einstein never said any such thing. This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.
I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Jobs? Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why reposting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or pleasant platitudes or inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.
Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Steve Jobs didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Trump never said or Ocasio-Cortez never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll repost it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!
We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious. The words attributed to Jobs in the post I got included the phrase, “Best awarded words in London.” Californian Steve Jobs is dying and says something bizarre about London? Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). I queried “Jobs last words” and got the answer “FALSE” (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/steve-jobs-deathbed-speech/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.
This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students.