There is no doubt that the social media revolution of the last decade is one of the most significant cultural and behavioural revolutions in history. The ubiquity of smartphones and internet connectivity, coupled with instant access to knowledge, has changed the way we live forever.
But in one respect I think this revolution is taking us back to the Dark Ages. At least some of us.
Back in the Middle Ages, people had no access to information and seldom travelled beyond the place they were born in. In Europe, Feudalism and the Church ensured that the majority of people believed what they were told by the authorities. This was ripe ground for the growth of superstitious ideas and mystical tales, which travelled by word of mouth and were readily believed by the teeming masses. There was no way for the common folk to check the validity of the stories they heard, and it was very easy for a good storyteller to make his story “go viral”, so to speak. Yes, it would take much more time than today, but eventually it would reach many gullible people who will believe it is true.
Sadly, Facebook is taking some of us back to that age. Anyone can write anything on Facebook. And there are some talented writers out there, who know which emotional or psychological buttons to push to make their story appealing and believable. The problem is that most people will not bother checking the authenticity of the story, and with one click on the “share” button, the story will go viral almost instantly.
I see it happening all the time. Here are a couple of examples from my Facebook feed, just from this week.
First, a story about a “new trend” among thieves to steal cars by jamming a penny into the door handle, thus causing the car not to lock.
Then there was this story about ad for the WD-40 spray lubricant, purportedly published back in the 1960s, full of sexual innuendos.
Needless to say, both stories are false, as a quick search on the internet (for example, on the Snopes website) will reveal. But most people will not check. They will share these stories – which appeal to their sense of safety or humour, in these examples – without a minimal fact check. The amazing thing is that if someone were to tell them this story in person, i.e. not through social media, it is probably less likely that they will take them at face value. It is even less likely that they will then go on to spread the word. But for some reason, they will do so on the internet.
I am not a psychologist. I’m merely an observer witnessing human behviour that is, frankly, beyond my comprehension.