How to Cultivate a Sensitive BS Meter

If there’s one thing that social media has taught me since I’ve been using it, it’s that many of my friends have a hard time telling the difference between reality and fiction. Not *you*, of course, You’re very good at it. It’s everyone else that’s really bad, right?


I’d like to think people are getting better at it, but that runs counter to my experience. The amount of information out there in the world is only growing, and judging by the new stories that appear in my feeds, our ability to sift through it is staying stagnant. Case in point? My kids saw this video online about resurrecting dead, mushy bananas using nothing more than a hairdryer and a bag of rice.

They were convinced (convinced!) it was true. All it took me to disprove them was a tiny bit of internet searching (when simply saying, “I’m your dad, trust me” wasn’t enough to convince them). The result? This nice take down by Snopes (the go-to source for all stupidity busting online). I don’t blame my kids for thinking the video was true. They’re 11 and 7 for crying out loud.

The rest of the people online who are sharing the video as gospel truth? Them I blame, though in their defense, it seems like something happens to people when they go online. They lose about half their IQ score in certain situations. How else do you explain all these people who somehow think Onion articles are real? (Warning–some bad language at that site.)

It doesn’t need to be like this. There are some basic steps people can take to make sure they appear smart and educated to all their friends. In public, this is hard to pull off. You need to have facts ready off the top of your head, ready to back you up at a moment’s notice. Online? You have the luxury of time. If you play your cards right, you should be able to never appear idiotic online. Well, maybe that’s a bit of a strong statement (it hasn’t worked for me, at least), but you can at least be twice as smart online as you are in person, and who doesn’t want that?

So here are the guidelines to follow:

  1. Think before you post something. Especially something that you’re enraged about or upset about or amused by or are in awe of. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, just like in real life. Everyone needs a brake that kicks in before they hit share. A pause button where they can reflect for a moment. If you saw this on a site you’re familiar with and trust, that’s one thing. If you saw it shared by a friend or acquaintance? Be careful.
  2. Google things you’re not familiar with. Seriously. All it takes is five seconds to put most of these posts to rest, permanently. Google the main topic, and throw in “snopes” as a term if you’re feeling particularly lazy. That should usually fill you in if you’re about to do something silly, though Snopes isn’t infallible. Still, if people would do that and nothing more, then that would cut down on a lot of these silly reposts.
  3. Think about the information you’re posting. There are some basic librarian questions to ask about it. Questions like
  4. Who wrote it or created it? Does that person have an axe to grind about something? Are they looking for page views? It’s amazing what people will do online to get eyeballs.
  5. When was it written? I’ve seen some zombie posts wandering the social networks, passed on from person to person from year to year as they wend their way through the interwebs. If it’s really old information, don’t present it as brand new.
  6. Why was it written? Check the other stories/information on the page. That will usually give you some good hints about the story. Better yet, if you’re really suspicious, google the page itself. Not sure if it’s a fake news site or not? The answer is a few keyboard clicks away!
  7. Is the news corroborated anywhere else? Can you back it up with some other reliable sources?

Basically, people just need to be a bit more suspicious of information these days. I know this is sounding a lot like research, and that’s because it is. The same principles I teach incoming freshman apply to much more than just research papers. All of us research things every day (or we should). All I’m asking for is for people to extend that skill to the stuff the repost online.

Because friends don’t let friends look foolish. Except for some of the time, when friends want to make fun of friends . . .

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