Just Because You Read It On The Internet, Doesn’t Make It True

Leave it to the Internet to put words into the mouths of long-lost leaders. For example: “The problem with Internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1864.

This obviously facetious comment has been floating around cyberspace for years now. And yet, with each passing day, it seems to be an even more reliable indicator of where we are as a technology-driven communications society.

Today, we see this happening in many high-profile situations, of which we’ll point out just two: on social media like Facebook, where a variety of hoaxes are posted and accepted as the truth by thousands, if not millions, of users; and the 2016 presidential campaign, where despite the media’s ability to respond to less-than-factual comments more quickly than in years past, half-truths and outright lies are again and again repeated as gospel.

One variation of this year’s Facebook hoax — yes, it seems to be an annual tradition — reads, in part: “Better safe than sorry! Now it’s official! It has been published in the media. Facebook has just released the entry price: $5.99 to keep the subscription of your status to be set to private.” The hoax includes a fictitious news report from a “Channel 13 News,” as well as various purported federal laws and statutes as further “proof.” In the first wave of this and similar hoaxes, gullible Facebook users share the hot new information with friends. Later, more savvy Facebook users end up posting status updates mocking the hoax, but it still happens like clockwork.

Then there’s the political arena. Despite fact-checking sites like PolitiFact (www.politifact.com), which do their best to determine which political comments are “True” (for example, Mike Huckabee’s claim that six of the 10 wealthiest U.S. counties surround Washington, D.C.) and which achieve “Pants on Fire” status (for example: Donald Trump’s claim this week that unemployment has hit 42 percent), too often once less-than-honest comments are made, it is impossible to fully reverse the damage. Individuals on either side of the political aisle accept their chosen (or, at least, preferred) leader’s words as the truth and are reluctant to admit that anything inaccurate was stated. And while individuals with opposing viewpoints howl at the moon about the situation, rarely does it impact what has transpired.

Take any “hot button” topic these days — Benghazi, abortion issues, gay rights, immigration reform, public education, the national debt, the legalization of drugs, Syrian refugees — and this phenomenon will occur.

Fans of The Colbert Report can point to the Oct. 17, 2005 pilot episode, where the host Stephen Colbert (who has since “gone legit” and can be found nightly on a major broadcast network) coined the word “truthiness,” described as a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. The idea gained so much notoriety that it has been adopted into the dictionary.

Nearly 10 years later, truthiness, along with Colbert’s definition, still stand as a modern conveyance of the phrase “don’t let your facts get in the way of my opinion.” Honest Abe would be proud to know that his Internet quote is more honest than many of the comments it describes.