So here’s the thing about information, especially when it comes to something related in any way, shape or form to social issues: the facts are always being revised to take new information into account. Anything that aligns with the “old information” is considered either propaganda for the status quo or is simply outdated. Because it’s so hard to get the facts on concepts that are already nearly impossible to define — just think of the word feminist, of which you have a sense of its meaning, but probably can’t put an exact definition to, because it practically depends completely on the person you ask — and you get why concrete, true information about that subject can be just as slippery.
Perhaps the best, most well-known example I can provide is the anti-vaccination movement. For a while, people put their faith in scientists and doctors as they said vaccines were important and beneficial to one’s health. They could prove it simply by showing how quickly diseases like measles and polio vanished once vaccinations became widespread. Then, all it took was a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, to claim vaccinations were harmful, that it caused autism. Suddenly it didn’t matter that scientists could prove that it didn’t. Nor did it matter just how safe vaccinations had made the population from otherwise uncurable diseases. It didn’t even matter when Wakefield took back what he said. “Vaccines are dangerous” went against the status quo, and all it took was just one piece of evidence to align with the statement for it to take off, despite the plethora of evidence that directly contradicted it.
It’s unfortunate, because we want to stay as informed as possible so we can make good decisions, have enlightened conversations, and basically just interact with people in the most educated, empathetic way. There’s nothing inherently bad about wanting to be armed with as much knowledge as possible. So we look things up, or happen across information as we scroll through our social media, and when we see a thing that we haven’t seen before, we assume it’s new content, and anything new is given the benefit of the doubt as “truth” because presumably it aligns with our political beliefs (go back to my post about social media and political views, as well as how our politics put blinders on us), and we want to assume that it is factual.
This “new information” tends to be exciting, but unfortunately, it also tends to be persistent and volatile. If you’ll allow me to indulge in a personal anecdote: I saw a Tumblr post (here’s the pinterest link that I found it on) where someone said how dumb it was that women have to shave. Then that same user noted that only children are without body hair, leading someone to come to the conclusion that, yes indeed, shaving was bad because it had pedophilic roots, because women were supposed to shave in order to emulate children, etc. And it’s most certainly true, because they have some historical facts that may or may not actually be factual. In our everyday perusal of social media, we assume that if a person sounds authoritative on a subject, they have good reason, so we take their words at face value. If we had to research every single thing we came across on the social media, we’d probably stop using social media.
Either way, it was a very notable moment. It was not, however, notable because I learned something about why shaving is bad. Rather, it was notable because someone replied, in full rant mode, about the inaccuracies of the comments above, going so far as to cite their sources. Now, usually, I don’t follow the links from these Tumblr posts. Sometimes, it’s impossible, even if I wanted to, because when they come up on my Pinterest feed, they’re usually screenshots with links embedded in the text rather than written out. For the purpose of this blog, I did follow the links, and even scanned the sources for those links. Based off of the web addresses and the appearances of the sites, some of them were certainly not academic, but some of them were, and the fact that this Tumblr user even bothered to include sources gives them a certain amount of credibility that the other two couldn’t have.
I know what you’re thinking; this is just what happens when you look to Tumblr for any source of information. It’s like Wikipedia, but worse. Anyone can put any information about anything, regardless of whether they have knowledge about that topic, and no one can vet that information to state that it’s accurate. Except, as I noted above, people do it anyway by calling people out. It’s like what Mill said about freedom of speech. Usually, it’s just best to let people say what needs said, because either they’re telling the truth, and truths should never be censored, or they’re telling lies, which will give other people the opportunity to bring the truth forth by correcting those lies. Not to mention, Tumblr is not necessarily a cesspool of misinformation. Say what you will about it, but some people on there are really smart, and really good at calling people out for things that don’t make sense.
Anyway, going back to my original point. The responder debunked the initial misinformation, but also noted that they don’t usually do things like that. It can be a lot of effort to correct every single incorrect piece of information that crosses your path on the internet. What that means is that there are instances like the one I noted where people jump to conclusions based off of things they know or think they know, and there aren’t always people willing or able to correct them and prevent the information from spreading. Just think of the anti-vaxxers. Their source of information retracted his statement about the dangers of vaccines, and there’s so much scientific evidence to suggest why it’s best to vaccinate your kids unless there’s some underlining medical condition that makes it unsafe (look up herd immunity, my friends), yet parents continue to shy away from the vaccinations.
It all boils down to this: while you can’t be expected to know everything or to call out every person who says something blatantly false, you also need to be aware that just because it sounds true doesn’t mean it is. If you’re going to spread information around, it’s probably best if you do some research of your own before doing so. Otherwise, you may sound like one more internet person who believed in something stupid just because it was a belief that went against the status quo.