So, I deeply sympathize with the impulse to signal-boost when you hear about something horrible. In some cases it’s a really good idea. But it’s only helpful when you’re signal boosting stuff that’s real and current.
This is particularly important when there’s a ton of stuff flying around.
Add to the signal, not to the noise.
If you’re reading a personal story a stranger has shared, I would suggest the following steps.
1. Find the original version.
If you’re looking at a screencap of a Facebook post, go see if you can find the original Facebook post. If you’re looking at a screencap of a Tweet, go see if you can find the original Tweet. See if there’s more to the story in a Tweet thread or in the comments or subsequent posts. I’ll note that five minutes ago, I saw a post on Imgur that was a screen cap of a Tweet that was a real Tweet, but had been positioned to make it look like a response to something it wasn’t, completely changing the meaning. Context matters.
If you’re seeing a horrifying story from a person you don’t know at all, see if there’s anything else you can easily find out about them. Do you have mutual friends on Facebook? If you look at their FB and it’s wall-to-wall conspiracy theories, that matters. If they registered their Twitter account 15 minutes before they posted the horror story, that matters.
Take a few seconds to see if they seem like someone you’d believe if they walked up to you on the street and told you something important. Sometimes you can tell just from their broader social media that this person is not reliable. If that’s the case, don’t re-share. This doesn’t mean you should challenge their credibility (that’s generally a dick move. Not surprisingly, it’s been embraced by Trump supporters who want to believe that the surge in hate crimes is somehow being faked) but don’t re-share if you don’t trust the source.
2. Beware of the best story in the room.
Remember the Rolling Stone rape story that they had to retract? The journalist actually interviewed a number of women who’d been raped, but focused on the woman with the best story, the one with a wealth of horrifying details. Unfortunately, she was lying about many of the details.
The inherent problem is that the person who’s fabricating can always have the best story.
There are some amazing stories that are also true. But if all the details are practically cinematic, that’s a red flag.
3. If there’s something that sends up a red flag for you, trust your gut.
Or at least re-read the piece and think it through a second time before you re-share. Again, I’m not saying you should call someone a liar liar pants on fire because something in their story struck you as off! Just don’t forward it if you feel that sense of distrust.
Again, there is so much out there right now that is happening. You don’t need to signal-boost the stuff you have any doubts about. There is enough.
4. If someone is telling you a story about a thing that happened in their city, but they weren’t there and they weren’t a personal friend of the victim, the odds are super high that some of what they’re telling you is wrong.
I’m saying this based on my personal knowledge of an incident in my town, and watching the stories about it shift and change before my eyes. The people telling the story are not lying, they’re participating in a large-scale version of the game of Telephone, and the results are about what you’d expect.
You don’t have to call anyone out, just don’t add to this problem by re-telling a story that was already third-hand or fourth-hand when it got to you.
If you are reading a news article that strikes you as important:
1. Check the date. OH MY GOD, PEOPLE. CHECK THE GODDAMN DATE.
If you’re looking at a source that doesn’t include any way to see if you’re looking at new news, or something from 2007, that’s actually a bad sign anyway, but try googling some of the details in the article to see what else pops up.
2. Check the source.
Here is a list of left-leaning incredibly unreliable sites:
DO NOT SHARE NEWS STORIES FROM THESE SITES. If it’s a legit news story, you’ll be able to find it somewhere else. If they’re the only ones talking about it, do not trust the story. Needless to say there’s a huge list of similarly unreliable right-leaning sites and you shouldn’t share from those, either.
And there’s also a ton of full-on fake news sites. Some are supposedly “satire,” others are just fakey fake fake. If you’re reading something alarming and you don’t immediately recognize the source, Google the name of the site and see what turns up, or see if you can find the story other places.
3. Remember all the things that are easy to fake.
Newspaper sites can be fake. Twitter accounts can be fake. The blue checkmark is supposed to help you spot the real deal, but if you’re looking at an image-capture, both the little blue checkmark and the whole damn Tweet can be faked.
Have you seen that clickbait article saying that the next Star Wars movie is going to be filmed in a suburb of the nearest big city to you? It always has a URL that looks like the URL for one of your local TV stations (at least at first glance). Fake!
Photos can be faked. Or, quite often, it’s a real photo but it doesn’t actually show what the caption claims it shows. The huge crowd you’re seeing turns out to be sports fans, or people at an environmentalist march in Paris in 2012, or religious pilgrims. If you see an article with a photo, it’s frequently a stock photo and not a picture of the person in the article.
Videos can be faked. They can be edited to show things that look bad but have been taken wildly out of context. Or they can be clips from a movie, or from shows like “What Would You Do” where it’s real reactions but a staged situation. Or they’re from years ago and, like the photos, don’t show what the caption claims.
When we’re already on edge, when we’re angry and scared and uncertain, it’s that much easier for bullshit to bypass our usual mental security systems. This is much like how we are more likely to catch colds when we’re sleep-deprived, stressed out, and not eating right — our defenses are weak. Be aware of this tendency.
4. Read things before you share them.
Ideally, read all the way to the bottom. (If you’re sharing it so you won’t lose track of it — well, first of all, Facebook actually has a “save” feature for links that will do this for you, but if you’d rather share to save, just note that when you share.)
5. Signal-boost legit stories from legit sources.
Find reliable but clickable sources when possible — a lot of people ration their NYT clicks and WaPo clicks because they don’t want to deal with the paywall. One of my favorite sources to share is NPR: reliable, trustworthy, free. If you want to share a NYT or WaPo story, sum it up in your share so your friends can assess whether it’s worth the click.
If one of your friends writes something you want to boost, be sure to note that this person is someone you personally know and trust. If you heard it verbally or they put it in a friends-locked post, and want to write about it publicly, make sure you have the details correct, and make sure your friend is OK with you sharing their story.
If you actually witness or experience a hate crime:
Your first priority should always be protecting the victim. (Including yourself, if you’re the victim.) Don’t mess around with your camera if what you need to do is call 911.
If it’s over, and you’re a witness, tell the targeted person or people that you saw what happened. Tell them that if they want to report it to the police, you’ll be their witness and back them up. If they say they don’t want to call the police, give them your contact info in case they change their mind. (If you’re the victim and you’re surrounded by witnesses, hopefully they’ll approach you. It shouldn’t be on you to say “hey! please stick around so you can vouch for me that this happened!” But you should also feel free to make that request / demand.)
If you have the presence of mind to take a video, then do it. I can tell you right now that the odds of me ever shooting a video of anything in an emergency are close to zero. If you’re in a public place like a parking lot, you can check nearby businesses to see if they have a surveillance camera running that might have caught it. If you can spot a license plate, write down the number.
Nothing signal-boosts like media coverage. I asked a friend of mine who’s a journalist how to get a reporter to cover something that’s happened to you. She said that a police report is key; it’s a big part of how journalists sift out the bullshit. Even if it’s not something the cops are going to do much about, the fact that you made a report gives you credibility, since making a false report is a crime.
(When I say “not something the cops are going to do much about” I’m not saying that I think the police will ignore hate crimes. But if your report is, “someone pulled up in a car, jumped out, punched a woman in the hijab while screaming epithets, and then they jumped back in their car and drove away, and all I remember about the car is that it was grey or maybe black and I didn’t get a license plate,” they’re not going to do much with this because there’s just not enough info there to work with, unless the perpetrator gets caught later a block away doing the same shit to someone else.)
If you want press coverage of an incident, news websites generally have a “contact us” area. If you know a specific reporter who covers crime in your city, call that specific reporter. You can call a newsroom and ask for an editor. You will absolutely need to provide your name and contact information. If you want to be anonymous in the story, the editor may be okay with that, but the reporter will always, always need to know who you are if what you’re offering is your personal story. If you have witnesses, video, or anything like that, that will help.