Fact, fiction and Twitter in the New Normal

As the line between fact and fiction blurs on social media, the New Normal demands more critical thinking of all of us.

There’s been a spate of social media “hoaxes” of late, where works of fiction told through Twitter have been grasped on as real – until the critical thinkers latch onto the issue and start raising valid questions. There was the exchange between two air-travellers over seats that was a “humorous” fabrication. And recently, there’s been the viral success of a video based on the tweets of a woman apparently dying of cancer – but which there are real ground to doubt is true.

Is this just the normal behaviour of hoaxers, or is there something deeper at work here? Could this actually be an aspect of the New Normal?

We’re used to having the difference between fact and fiction flagged up to us. When that information isn’t given to us by the medium, we bias ourselves towards assuming fact. And that’s what seems to have happened in these cases. Sure, both sing to easy emotional “wins”, one humorous, one emotionally tragic. That’s why both spread so far – but in both cases, people have ignored clear warning signs of the fictional nature of the stories. It’s almost as if they want to believe.

That leaves us with a challenge. We need to learn to consume more critically because the old signals we use dot rely on are gone, and are unlikely to come back. It doesn’t really matter wether the person creation this fiction did it for attention, did it as a creative writing project, or did it to deceive and manipulate. What matters is that we read with a questioning spirt, and challenge the veracity of what we read.

That’s a skill we need to teach to a new generation, too. This is the media environment our children are going to grow up in, and they need both parents and teachers to act as their tutors in the art of critical thinking. The New Normal has swept away the old modes of gatekeeping, and as means to publishing proliferate, that’s not going to reverse itself. In that sense, we owe it to the younger generation to engage with this on its own terms, and not just long nostalgically for an era that has passed.

Journalists failed us in the cancer story. The reported uncritically, without the needed challenges. We can’t rely on the old gatekeepers – and I say that as a journalist. Instead, we all need to take responsibility for sifting the true for the false, for deciding where to assign trust, and where to proceed with caution.

This is our New Normal.

Photo by Riccardo Cambiassi, and used under a Creative Commons licence