Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sky Is Falling...According To "The Internets"

I try to be aware of the news.  I listen to NPR as I get ready in the morning and also I read through articles on Google News during breaks at work .  I’ll admit that I get a lot of my news from The Daily Show & The Colbert Report too.  And yes, I agree:  that last sentence is a sad commentary on modern T.V. news.  What has crept up on me in the past few years is how the dissemination of information has changed.  It's incredible to me the amount of breaking news I get from my friends or "likes" on Facebook:  celebrity deaths, earthquakes, political squabbles, and so on. 

Earlier this week I was scanning through my Facebook feed and saw a few posts that took me aback:
“Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building” 
"BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage." 
"Police helicopter just ordered to pull back after Rep. Trent Franks tried to take it down with a shotgun. #CongressHostage." 
"BREAKING: Congress demanding $12 trillion ransom or "all the kids die" #CongressHostage."
WHAT!?!?!  Should I switch on the TV or maybe has more info on …oh wait, that’s a post by The Onion.  (!/Theonion)  Whew.  Not their best joke, but whatever.  In reality it took about as long for me to dismiss this "news" item than it took you to read the “W” in “WHAT!?!?!”  As far as I’m concerned that’s where this story should have ended.  It didn’t…

Why am I blogging about this on the site for our skeptical podcast?  One of the recurring segments we have on the show is called “Poe’s Corner.”  The Skeptic Wire team and the listener are tasked to tell the difference between a piece of satire and real news stories or headlines.  The idea comes from the internet meme “Poe’s Law.”  The definition from Wikipedia is:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.'s_law
One would think that the fact that this "news" came from The Onion, famously America’s premier satire newspaper, would be one hell of a “winking smiley.”  And yet the US Capitol Police felt it necessary to release this statement:
“It has come to our attention that recent Twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol. Conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal,” said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman for the Capitol Police.
“There is no credibility to these stories or the Twitter feeds. The U.S. Capitol Police are currently investigating the reporting.”

Did we REALLY need to be told not to take a tweet from The Onion seriously?  An investigation?  What the heck needs to be “investigated?”  How's this for an investigation:  "It’s the Onion.  Investigation over."  Think of all the money saved!  Even if you had never heard of The Onion, it would take less than 30 seconds of google research to figure it out.  Of course it’s a joke.  Let it go.

I’m a member of the skeptic movement because Tweets like this should never have been a story.  But yet the police are doing their best old timey british cop "What's all this then?" routine.  Add to that all the news follow ups and the talking head commentary?  Now we've got a circus.

As a skeptic I believe everyone should be taught critical thinking from an early age.  Obviously I’m not talking about indoctrination or telling people what to think.  What I would hope for is that everyone would be taught how to reason through the information we receive.  In other words:  to separate the wheat from the chafe.   We should know better all on our own.  We can use common knowledge to determine that anything published by the Westborough Baptist Church is going to be a hate filled screed, or that something coming from the Discovery Institute will be anti-evolution. It should be fairly well known that anything coming from the Onion is a deliberate fake.  Of course it’s a joke.  Let it go.

I’m a skeptic because some people just don’t know how to take a joke.

(PS:  Please give The Skeptic Wire on Facebook a "LIKE"!!!)

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