We have an information banquet at our finger tips. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives. Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.
Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:
- Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
- Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
- Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
- There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
- YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
- Every second two new members join LinkedIn
Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative. It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information. The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.
“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?
While our new ‘meme’ culture has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.
Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage. I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information. The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person. This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs. People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.
The Snowball Effect
So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it. But others do. There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.
Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).
With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now. According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic. ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.
‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?
So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:
- “C” Credibility:
- What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
- Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
- If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
- Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
- “A” Accuracy:
- Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
- Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
- “R” Reliability:
- Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
- Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
- Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
- “S” Support:
- Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
- Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.
Monitoring Your Information Diet
We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).
But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day. Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.
It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.
“The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb
[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]
*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com
Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:
- Judging the Quality of Science Sources: Skeptical Raptor
- A Guide to Looking Smart on the Internet: How to Find and Evaluate Online Information: SkeptiForum
- The Google University Effect: NeurologicaBlog
- A quick and easy go-to ->>> Snopes.com
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.
Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources. Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)
Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of Friendship. The New Yorker. October 7.
Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6