A while back, I made a somewhat snarky, if not semi-impassioned, plea for people to stop sharing memes on social media. I laid out my reasons, the crux of which centered on the hazards of oversimplifying complex topics — divisiveness and a ridiculously high level of confirmation bias. Those lofty aims didn’t seem to move any of you, so here’s another one.
Sometimes you look stupid.
Nothing puts our humanity on full display like a natural disaster. The best of us put our differences aside and rush in to help those we may not otherwise even think about. Religion, ethnicity, political affiliations — those are all cast aside by our better angels. We see someone in need, and we reach out. History is replete with examples of people rushing into the fires, running toward the flood waters, stepping between danger and innocents. Then Facebook arrived.
Don’t get me wrong. Facebook and Twitter can be outstanding communication platforms in times of tragedy and turmoil. The Arab Spring was born on those platforms. But they are also the domains of people who tried to deflect perceived criticism of President Trump’s actions (or inactions, depending upon your perspective) during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Houston by citing President Obama’s lack of action after Hurricane Katrina.
If you’re one of those people who don’t know that Barack Obama was not the president of the United States in 2005, stop reading this right now. Seriously. Put it down and just walk away. I can’t help you.
This time around, I’ll illustrate my point with just a single meme. It’s an oldie but a goodie — a meme that never seems to die. An immortal meme, if you will.
Picture it: You’ve just survived the landfall of a monster storm. Power is out everywhere. Floodwaters are rising. Friends, family and that guy who plays his music too loud at terribly inconsiderate hours are stranded, clinging to rooftops throughout your neighborhood. You’ve managed to get out, and as you make your escape to safety down Houston’s flooded streets, you pass, of all things, a shark!
At least that’s what a picture currently making the rounds (again) on Facebook would have you believe. Sounds impossible, right? That’s because it is.
Forget about the mechanics of the thing for just a moment. Never mind that you are somehow able to drive your vehicle down a roadway so heavily flooded that a fairly large shark can just come strolling past. Sharks stroll, or so I’ve been told. Or, in the case of this particular photo, never mind that the water appears to barely reach higher than a few inches up the ubiquitous concrete barriers used in American highway construction, and could therefore barely support the thrashing side-to-side motions of a medium-sized goldfish.
No, friend. Those kinds of contextual clues are far too subtle to be noticed by the average Facebook user, right? We need to rely on something else. Something more discerning but intuitively easy to use. Something like Google.
It took all of 10 seconds to type “shark in Houston street” into the search box, after which I was presented with about 12.3 million results (in 0.94 seconds, no less). The first link appearing under Google’s Top Stories? A USA Today headline that read: “Hurricane Harvey: That shark photo is fake — and part of a bigger problem.” Let that sink in. It was the first link. The very first link.
A little under 11 seconds is what it would’ve taken my family friend (and the boatload of others) who shared the photo — and the totally appropriate comment, “Holy crap!!!” — to realize they were about to make themselves look really, really stupid.
The photo is a composite (read: fake) image that first began making the rounds on social media in the fall of 2011, after Hurricane Irene made landfall in Puerto Rico. It has resurfaced many times since, each time being debunked by news and fact-checking outlets to the point that even those subterranean rock dwellers I mentioned in my last column on memes likely know it’s fake.
But not Bob (Bob’s name has been changed to protect the stupid). No, sir! He was stunned and then he was flabbergasted and then he was stunned again, just for good measure! So stunned it never occurred to him that this might not be a totally legitimate photograph, and here we are.
It’s not so much that these fake photos are dangerous that bothers me. It’s the gullibility of the person who clicks “share” indiscriminately that presents the danger. If they’ll share something as obviously and demonstrably false as a fake photo of a large shark swimming down a flooded Houston street, what else will they share without verifying? Do they have friends? Do those friends trust their judgement? What happens if these folks reproduce?! SnapChat. That’s what.
If you’re one of those folks who like to click “share” without a moment’s hesitation to think about what you’re sharing, I hope you can handle ridicule very well. Because if I see it, I’m calling you on it, and I’m going to do it in a spectacularly dramatic fashion. If you’re one of those folks, you’re doing more harm than good, and I want to make sure you know it.
Cue the “Theme from ‘Jaws.’”