You’ve now had nearly a week to try your best to keep up with your New Year’s resolutions. How are you doing with them? Good? I’m glad. It’s important to stay healthy, active, well-read, and all the wonderful adjectives that I truly hope you continue pursuing to February and beyond. But there’s one significant thing I want you to add to your list of resolutions: think harder about what you share online. It’s easier than ever to cause damage to yourself and others with a single click, so a little forethought can and will go a long way. One small experiment I started this new year was to keep count of how many false stories my friends have shared on Facebook and as of 6 days into the new year, it's already at 39; and I only have 226 "friends".
If you’re anything like me, you wake up every morning, grab your phone from the charger, and scroll through what you missed overnight. Maybe you hop on Twitter, maybe you hit Facebook, or maybe Reddit is your cup of tea. But at some point, you invariably come across a headline, image macro, or GIF that demands sharing. Sleep still stuck in the corners of your eyes, you don’t even think about what happens next: you react and share the item with your followers and friends.
That isn’t best practice, particularly in the shadow of an election that was influenced, in part, by an abundance of easily transmittable fake info. When it comes to media, what people share en masse can create runaway news narratives that influence millions of readers. As a consumer and distributor of content — yes, your social media feed is its own news distributor, one that’s accumulated the trust of family and friends — you’re a big part of how that works. We’ve already seen how fake news can and does overtake news from reputable sources. But even bad stories written with the best of intentions can go viral because people didn’t stop to think a little bit more about what they saw and shared.
In no way am I saying this is an easy task. Good news outlets function because they’ve built up trust based on hard work and a commitment to the truth, so challenging that and throwing all your assumptions to the wind will easily leave you feeling unmoored and unable to believe anything. But media literacy is now more important than ever.
So before you share, consider these steps:
- Take stock of the outlets you believe in.
- When a story seems suspicious from a trusted source, weight it against reporting elsewhere.
- Allow yourself to compare stories and voices before forming an opinion and sharing it with the world.
- Forget being the friend who shares all news first, and instead focus on sharing the truth.
But don’t stop the strategy with the news you share. Take a moment and think about the otherwise innocuous things you share, too, and how much you share them. Now, to be clear: no one here is saying puppy pictures are bad.
But it’s important to seek balance. The internet’s candy — cute animals, YouTube parodies, Harry Potter listicles — is wonderful. But they should absolutely not compose your entire online diet. This year, you will need to make more of a conscious effort to stay more informed about even seemingly minor things. Why? Because those harmless things can be co-opted in frightening ways.
Memes come and go with incredible speed on the internet, so keeping up with them is hard. But if you consume social media with a little bit more care, you might not accidentally share memes that spread hate. You can also go a step further and recognize that some people might have it harder online than you do, so being extra sensitive to content that makes light of bad situations or takes advantage of others will make you a better person on the web.
All this is to say that 2017 is the year we can all strive to be a little better at using the internet. We can still have fun and we can still partake in the craziness that makes the online world so special. But it’s also time to take a step back and think about the responsibility we have in sharing the news. Because how we share the news (what we collectively believe to be true) will shape our history. We’re only beginning to understand the power of these network effects and what they mean to the world we live in. So when you wake up each morning, stop and ask yourself, do I really want to share this?