Monday, November 28, 2016

The danger in not checking

There’s been a dramatic increase in fake news shared online, as numerous real news outlets have reported. Much of that was aimed at rightwing users of social media, but whatever the ideology, motive, or origin, it was a terrible development. Worse, it went to reveal how awful most people are at checking before sharing. We’ve now seen how that failure to check can have serious potential consequences.

Over the past couple weeks, people in New Zealand have been sharing something meant to help prevent suicides by including a helpline. That’s a good thing to do, though I have no idea why it happened. The problem with this wasn’t in the sharing, it was in the details—specifically, the phone number.

The text being shared was taken verbatim from a US posting, perhaps after the recent US election, or maybe in the run up to the Thanksgiving holiday. But some Kiwis posted it complete with the US toll-free phone number, “1-800-273-TALK (8255).”

As pointless as sharing the US number was for New Zealanders, at some point someone made a slight change: They changed “1-800” to “0800” the most common toll-free prefix in New Zealand. The problem is, “0800-273-TALK (8255)” is not a valid New Zealand number for anything, and certainly not suicide prevention.

The New Zealand helpline numbers are:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has a complete list of support and resources for supporting someone who is suicidal.
None of that useful information was mentioned in any of the New Zealanders’ shares I saw on Facebook, and yet it’s information that could really help someone. People shared incomplete or even grossly incorrect information with the best of intentions—their hearts were truly in the right place—but it was because they shared without checking that they ended up doing no good, or—worse—possibly even doing harm. THIS is why it’s important to check things before sharing them—ALWAYS.

I first became aware of this when a Facebook friend posted a status update correcting the meme. Since then, I’ve corrected shares several times, something I did only after I checked. That doesn't mean I’m wonderful and superior, it actually means I’m jaded. In fact, I’ve become so cynical as a result of all the fake or merely unreliable stuff I saw shared during the recent US election that I pretty much just assume that what I see is wrong in some significant way.

Obviously, most of the nonsense people share on social media won’t have life-or-death implications (and I choose to believe this one didn’t either), but sharing bad information, whether merely misleading, or outright fraudulent, damages our society in many incalculable and mostly invisible ways: But damage us, it does.

We must all think before we share, and double-check everything. If we can’t or won’t double-check before sharing, then we probably shouldn’t share the thing it all.

We can never be sure when the consequences of sharing bad or misleading information can turn out to be serious. We need to be better because we can’t rely on anyone else to get it right.

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