Saturday, October 13, 2018

Judging a meme isn’t easy

The Tweet above was posted above by NBC News, and while its subject is pretty sickening, it's also hardly surprising. But when I saw a meme based on it today, it underscored how hard it is for ordinary people to evaluate memes. The Tweet above is both real and from a reputable source. But memes based on such Tweets can accidentally call that into question.

I originally saw the meme (below right) earlier today, and thought nothing of it. When I was back on Facebook to reply to a comment on the Facebook Page share of my blog post from earlier today, I noticed it again and that someone had noted the date on the meme—October 13, when it was October 12 in the USA, where NBC News is based.
The meme in question.

This was an astute observation, and sometimes it might even be enough to call the truth of a meme into question. But not this time.

The problem is that date stamps on Tweets don't mean anything because they're displayed according to the user's settings (which makes sense since there's no such thing as a "correct" time). Any screen grab of a Tweet will display the date stamp of the device/computer taking that screen grab. For example, if I take one from my computer, the picture of the Tweet will show New Zealand time, not the date and time of the person who posted the Tweet. I’ve actually run into that very issue several times, which is why I usually embed a Tweet or delete the timestamp from a screen grab to avoid confusion—or anyone assuming it’s fake because the time stamp is “wrong”.

The original NBC News Tweet was posted at 8:08pm Eastern (USA) Daylight Time on October 12. That same moment was 2:08am October 13, as in the meme, Central European Summer Time (and 1:08pm NZDT October 13 here in New Zealand). What this means is that either whoever made the meme was in the Central European Summer Time zone, or their device was set to that time zone, or else they used a meme-making service that’s located there (I have no way of knowing which it was). The time stamp in the embedded Tweet above will probably display what time/date it as in your own time zone.

All of this can be very confusing, of course, but unless all Tweets were stamped with UTC rather than localised time, this confusion is unavoidable. However, a simple check for the original Tweet, as I did, is all that’s really necessary to verify it. I just took the further step of working out what time zone was in the meme in order to put anyone else’s mind at ease (because the question had been raised, merely sharing a link to the original Tweet didn’t seem enough).

The best way around this is to share a link to the original Tweet, not a picture of it, because people doubt a lot of things they see on social media—which is a good thing! Unfortunately, though, most people don’t doubt enough. Add that to the fact we’re all very busy and don’t have time to search out verification or sources for everything we want to share, and it increases the opportunity for false information to spread.

My advice is simple. First, stick with reliable sources, ones that can be checked easily. Memes made from some random person’s Tweets aren’t as reliable, without checking further, as ones from reputable news sources. But even if the source is credible, verify the meme is really based on something they said, reported, etc. Otherwise, give it a miss. If you simply must share something unverified, then at least say in your post something like, “I haven’t had a chance to verify this yet.” Someone may do the job for you—or debunk it. Either way, the truth will win.

I hadn’t set out to make this Internet Meme Verification Day, but when things fall into a blogger’s lap, there’s no escape. And, no, I haven’t verified that assertion. It isn't easy to judge a lot of things.

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