At least five of my friends shared or posted about it. Apparently, when asked about terrorists, Russian president Vladimir Putin said, “To forgive the terrorists is up to God, but to send them to him is up to me.”
Given what I know about Putin (which is limited to the popular image of him riding a horse shirtless, various hunting expeditions and general male bravado), it seemed plausible, so I shrugged and moved on. Here’s the problem, and this is not a joke: Putin never said that, and the line is from a Denzel Washington film from 2004.
Originally tweeted by Russia Today news anchor Remi Maalouf, this false quote was shared millions of times by Americans, loving its boldness and action-hero feel. With comments like “This guy is the man” and “Oh no he didn’t!” a handful of my Facebook friends reveled in the news. Similar posts (and from similar friends) have claimed that the same “crisis actor” can be shown in photos in the wake of the Paris attacks, shootings at Aurora and Newtown, pumping out fodder for conspiracy theorists (several sources have confirmed that these are three different people). Take your pick of posts that make you the least bit suspicious, run a Google search and, more often than not, it will turn out to be ridiculous or nonsense.
What stands out isn’t the fact that misinformation runs rampant in the world of social media — this is, unfortunately, a given. What stands out is, as Charles Spurgeon said, “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Not Mark Twain, I looked it up.)
Corrections and fact checks will never spread like wildfire.
So why does this scare me? Facebook has already become the social media platform most prone to isolating one’s point of view, with volatile comment sections and questionable sources. In one study about political polarization, social scientists found that “roughly speaking a Facebook user has five politically like-minded friends for every one friend on the other side of the spectrum.”
People become more daring behind a keyboard. Facebook users are more liable to scroll past posts with which they disagree with or unfriend the person altogether. Twitter and Instagram seem to escape this seriousness, likely due to the youthfulness of its audience (less chance for serious argument among teenagers sharing vines than adults sharing politicized statuses). Combine all of this potential for hostility with misinformation and a general disregard for fact-checking; now, add in the fact that 2016 is an election year. That’s why Facebook is starting to scare me.
Having said this, social media remains an incredible outlet for political engagement. The introduction of candidates to younger audiences, with greater activity through apps like Snapchat and Instagram, will do wonders for millennial voter turnout. Candidates may live-tweet debates, but where’s the account live fact-checking, and why isn’t it the most important? Social media cannot be a haven for inaccuracies and false statements on issues of importance — a Vladimir Putin quote is relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, but imagine the havoc a well-placed Hillary Clinton misquote could wreak.
This past January, Facebook announced it would label suspected hoaxes and fake news with a warning and reduce the frequency of posts with misinformation in the news feed. If this is happening on a regular basis, either my settings are messed up or the plan of attack isn’t working. The questionable material I see posted every day is as prevalent as ever. And simply put, change on this front cannot come from the organization itself — it has to come from responsible Facebook users who question sources, who share corrections and who refuse to allow friends with whom they disagree to disappear into a bubble of falsities and demagoguery. I’ve seen it happen and it’s not pretty.
One reason this strikes me now more than ever is the ongoing discussion about coddling that I have seen shared on my timeline by Facebook friends of other generations. The Washington Post asked, “Are colleges coddling students or just leveling the playing field?” and the Atlantic bemoaned, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial titled “The Rise of the College Crybullies” by Roger Kimball, my generation is accused of hiding behind trigger warnings, and is said to be overly sensitive and politically correct. As a student at a large, liberal, public university, let me say that instances of racism and sexism, even in its subtlest forms that I may not understand, take a toll on my peers. Students and their ability to learn are affected. I’m proud to be a part of the generation ensuring that during these formative years of education, people have a safe space to live and learn. This isn’t coddling, it’s just decent.
Every generation, political base and ideological faction walls themselves in, on Facebook and otherwise, from people with whom they disagree. Millennials, instead of walling ourselves in with false sources and Facebook posts — the kind that paint the world in black and white, beget conspiracy theories and refuse to be corrected — have chosen inclusive language and tolerance.
Brett Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.