Near the end of last year I spotted a tweet on my timeline containing the following image:
Whenever I come across things like this on the Interwebs, a Little Red Flag of Skepticism pops up in my head. (It has a white interrobang on it.) So, just to be sure, I popped the 0906 phone number in the image into Google. The third result was this page on Snopes
As you can see, this wasn’t actually a hoax; there really had been a scam, but it dated back in December 2005 and had been shut down quickly. As a result, this information didn’t really serve a purpose in 2012. So, as the helpful citizen that I am, I thought I’d reply to him, letting him know that there was nothing to worry about and that the scam had been shut down seven years before.
His response was four simple words.
“Don’t shoot the messenger.”
Now, this got my back up for two reasons. Firstly, I was very careful to word my reply so that he didn’t think I was being rude. And secondly, I don’t believe it even applies here.
To me, saying “Don’t shoot the messenger” is a cop-out. Surely “Don’t shoot the messenger” is only valid when you don’t have any control over the content of the message, or when you aren’t in a position to decide whether to pass it on. After all, it seems unlikely to me that the Twitter user in question was forced to pass the information on. “Don’t shoot the messenger” can apply to Royal Mail, DHL or anyone handing a sealed letter to someone. You can’t really apply it to bloggers. Even microbloggers.
I can understand why he believed that was taking that stance: this wasn’t something he’d made up himself, and I’m sure that he had probably thought that he was being helpful to his Twitter followers.
By posting this, he wasn’t simply being a messenger. He was saying to the world, “I believe this to be true, so take it as such.”
If you’re on any social network you have a responsibility to the people who might read what you post. I know that might sound surprising, but what you have to remember is that by posting things on Twitter you are effectively self-publishing. Also, it doesn’t really matter whether you have one or a million friends or followers. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you have no followers at all; if your post can be found on the Internet then that’s enough.
This issue is coming up ever more frequently, such as the McAlpine furorelast year. Even during the recent bombings in Boston, MA, people on Reddit were passing details around of people who had been falsely accused of carrying out the attacks. This lead to the FBI having to release pictures of the suspects earlier than had been planned to prevent a witch hunt.
The fact is that it is your responsibility to check whether the information you’re passing on at least passes a basic fact check. A quick search on your search engine of choice really takes no time at all. Pick a couple of key words or bits of information from what you’re about to share. And getting defensive about proliferating hoaxes solves nothing.
This applies to articles that other people have shared as well. I always try to take the time to read articles before I share it with others on Twitter, even if it comes from this very site. If I have time, I’ll check out any references mentioned in the article as well. Not only does this mean that I have a clearer understanding of what I’m sharing with others, it also means that I’ve verified its validity.
Now, I know it isn’t possible to vet the entire Internet. And there will always be times when, even when we’ve tried our best to check our sources, something slips through the net. But if you are pulled up for being wrong about something, don’t get defensive and deny responsibility. Politely apologise and thank them for letting you know. Then correct your mistake if you can, and move on.
It is practically impossible to remove something from the Internet. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fact or utter nonsense. Rumours spread like wildfire. I know that very little is going to happen as a result of the PDS scam being passed around the Internet. No one will be harmed, no one will lose any money. But it highlights the responsibility that we have, whether or not you’re a card-carrying skeptic, to do our very best to check things before passing them on to others.