You may be familiar with the oft-quoted line attributed to Mark Twain, “A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.” It’s cropped up quite a bit over the last couple of years in discussions about fake news and alternative facts. Twain’s words seem a particularly apt description of social media’s role in spreading misinformation faster than ever, while amplifying the confusion of who or what to trust.
Putting aside any political connotations, let’s instead consider whether marketers are guilty of inadvertently spreading inaccurate, outdated, or just plain wrong information. Sure, getting a fact wrong or misinterpreting a stat isn’t necessarily the same as telling a bald-faced lie. But neither is it trivial when our content is supposedly intended to create the impression of authority and expertise. In short, fact-checking matters just as much in a 280-character tweet as it does in a 10-page white paper. But, boy, has the bar for accuracy slipped worryingly low in this fast-paced, attention-seeking online world.
Taken on trust
Almost all the information we consume, particularly online, is crowdsourced in one way or another. Wikis are the obvious example of the community collating, curating and certifying the vastness of human knowledge. Yet most of the information we encounter is filtered and reinterpreted through a series of books, blogs, infographics, explainer videos, articles, and, of course, social media updates.
Unfortunately, this means a lot of the information we encounter as consumers of content may be the result of garbled repetition. Error builds upon error until what may once have been accurate morphs into something inaccurate. As we are also content producers, we then risk compounding the mistake.
“A little research is precisely what many people don’t want when it comes to their digital diet … because many of the information environments we inhabit are magnificently hospitable to meme-sharing, attention-grabbing and OMG-have-you-seen-this moments – and relatively uninterested in hang-on-a-second-let’s-pause-and-think-twice,” as Tom Chatfield writes in New Philosopher.
Most social media users can’t afford to check the validity and accuracy of every factoid that crosses their feeds. How could they? Therefore, there’s a huge element of trust inherent in that relationship between publisher and audience.
But that means we as the producers of this content must continually prove we are deserving of that trust. If we’re serving up these bite-sized snackettes of information into social media, it’s our responsibility to ensure that they won’t rot the very trust and authority we hope to instill.
A client once supplied me with a crucial statistic for an infographic I was creating and cited a government e-book on business as the source. I was surprised to discover that the footnote for the stat in the government e-book claimed it came from a blog post published the previous year on the client’s website. That post claimed the stat came from an earlier edition of the government e-book, which in turn referenced an earlier article on the client’s website. The two had been unwittingly handballing the same stat back and forth for years, each attributing it to the other and each giving the information a veneer of freshness by failing to include any other contextual information or mention how outdated the information actually was. To this day I’m still not clear who conducted the initial research.
I certainly didn’t continue the chain of inaccuracy by using this stale stat in the new infographic.
In my mind, an infographic without checkable references is just an untrustworthy set of icons and numbers. I’m not saying every infographic should undermine its visual appeal and brevity with a long list of fine print at the bottom. But you should still make it easy for readers to check each and every stat and fact. Too many sources? List them on a webpage and post a short URL at the bottom of the infographic.
Sources by themselves aren’t necessarily a guarantee of accuracy. The way in which the fact or stat is summarized and represented can also mislead. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve scrolled to the bottom of an infographic and followed the references to discover the original research is years out of date or taken out of context. And that’s if the sources are even included.
A+ for effort: D- for diligence
Having worked as a writer, journalist, and editor for many years, I’ve learned the hard way to be extremely skeptical when researching. If I can’t verify a fact or claim, it makes me nervous.
OK, I admit I’m quite the pedant. You never forget the first time a university lecturer marks you down for failing to provide adequate references (correctly formatted) to back up the claims in an assignment into which you poured so much effort.
But this is about far more than just “showing your work.” It’s about applying appropriate rigor in research. When you have to document your own references so precisely, you soon learn to distrust any source that doesn’t do the same.
So much content is published, shared, and remixed every day that checking the veracity of an individual claim can mean following a trail of bread crumbs from infographic to blog post to article and so on – stripping away each filter or reinterpretation to get back to the source. Therefore, it is extremely frustrating when – after spending an hour trying to confirm the accuracy of a statistic I desperately want to use – my journey ends at a blog post from someone I have no reason to trust and who didn’t bother to mention where the information was first sourced.
This is why the original source is all that matters – not only when fact-checking for your own sake but also for your audience who deserves the same courtesy when verifying your claims. Otherwise, you’re relying on a source less diligent than you – and then why should your audience trust anything you say? I don’t care if TechCrunch says 84% of Twitter users have developed an addiction to blancmange. If I want to use the stat in a future column (“The disturbing connection between social media and pink desserts”), I need to check and cite the original research. After all, it’s not unknown for a stat to be *gasp* made up!
Who said that?
Social media loves quotations. These days, it seems all you have to do to achieve viral gold is slap an inspirational quote onto a sunset image and spam it to every network. But while the right quote correctly attributed can lend authority and gravitas to your content, an inaccurate or misattributed quote can just as easily undermine it. (Just saying, but Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill most likely didn’t say half of the pithy bons mots commonly attributed to them.)
The level of inaccuracy can sometimes be spectacular, but most dodgy quotations aren’t necessarily deliberate. Most probably arise from poor editing, a lack of context, or unreliable sources (Wikiquote, I’m looking at you!).
A great example of how social media can mangle a quote is discussed in a 2011 article from The Atlantic, which investigates how a Facebook user’s words ended up being attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. – “mangled to meme in less than two days.”
What surprised me most about The Atlantic article was the number of people who defended the quote as legitimate even after learning of the mistake. To them, the message is the thing. People most commonly share quotations that represent and support their view of the world. Because they identify with the sentiment, it feels “right.” And because it feels right, they are less likely to question its accuracy or authenticity.
However, if the person didn’t say or write it, it isn’t a quote. Period.
Yes, fact-checking can be both boring and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it can be skipped or taken less seriously. Fact-checking was once the responsibility of that highly endangered species, the copy editor (something for which they were never fully appreciated). However, very few of us have the luxury of a dedicated fact-checker on the team these days, so the unshirking responsibility falls to us.
Just how does a busy content producer, infographic designer, or social media manager navigate this maze of online information to separate fact from fiction?
Always search for the most recent statistics. No one cares about a social media stat from 2010 when so much has changed in the intervening years. Use your search engine tools to restrict searches to a particular time frame, such as the last year.
Trust no one. Even if the stat is published by a leading brand you think would be above reproach, check its sources. Wikipedia is NOT a source. But it does contain a lot of references and citations, so follow those links.
And get a reputable quotations dictionary.
Speaking of which, let’s return to that Mark Twain quote I mentioned at the beginning. Even if you skip past the difficult fact that the quote was first attributed to him in 1919, nine years after his death, there is absolutely no evidence he ever wrote or said it.
According to the indispensable site Quote Investigator (there’s another tip for you), numerous versions of the quote pop up throughout the previous two centuries, morphing with each paraphrase to become the (disputed) Twain version we’re familiar with today. The earliest recorded version was penned by the satirist Jonathan Swift in 1710: “Falsehood flies; and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.”
The jest is over. Check your sources.
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