Spreading Lies: Has Social Media Made You Too Trusting?


Social media means we always have the latest news at our fingertips. How many times have you learned about a big news event or even celebrity death through a tweet or Facebook update long before you heard it on a traditional news source? And how many times have you passed that news along, not knowing if it was true or not? Or retweeted a tweet without even opening the attached link to see if it was actually the story purported to be there? We all do it, what’s the harm, right? 

Well, there are those who are more than willing to take advantage of the rush to be first with news. Less and less, people are fact-checking. And it’s not just us “regular” people, it’s journalists, too. Recently a whole bunch of them were purposefully duped.

Enter Ryan Holiday, the Liar

According to a recent Forbes article, Ryan Holiday used the site Help A Reporter Out (HARO) to pose as an expert source for a whole slew of articles from prominent news sources. Then, it came out he was lying to them. Many of the stories he told were pure fabrications. 

These lies were reported in a lot of reputable news channels: ABC News, MSNBC, the New York Times and other media giants. Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, wrote an angry blog post about it. Calling out Holiday for blatantly lying to as many as possible to promote his new book about how to lie to reporters and get cited in the news.

Interesting enough, Holiday fired back in the comment section to Shankman’s blog, “I do suck at lying. That’s why it’s so scary that my experiment would take down the most trusted outlets in the world.” 

To which Shankman replied, in part, “Confessing that you lied doesn’t absolve you of your sins… You blatantly lied to promote your book – if a small business does it as badly as you did, and gets outed, you think that’s going to help their business? Lying doesn’t help businesses.”

Another commenter chimed in, “No, it didn’t take down anyone. They’re still trusted, because your contributions to their daily churn were negligible.” 

That’s just the part of the iceberg that hit the Titanic.

The story shined a harsh light on the problem and got a lot of press. However, it’s just a more highly publicized part of a bigger story. There has always been a rush to get the story out first, but at least in the pre-real-time world, there were a few checks and balances and more time for fact checking. 

Now, everyone from trusted reporters to plain folks who just want to be the first of their friends to “discover” something are all rushing to post the news first, Despite the fact that fact checking has never been easier. How long does it take to Google something and click more than one link? Too long, apparently. Truths, half-truths and complete falsehoods spread far and wide at amazing speed today.

Why are we so trusting?

Is speed to get something out the only reason this problem exists? Not really. Complacency in the face of a fast moving stream is part this problem We all have our own trusted sources, who haven’t steered us wrong yet. That person could be a luminary in your area of interest, like Chris Brogan. It could be someone much less famous, but big in your sphere of influence, like your local Social Media Club president or even your Aunt Fanny.  

Whoever it is, you’ve come to trust them – even if you don’t know their personal integrity first hand. So, we get complacent. We pass on tidbits without checking and links without opening them. 

Is the published word Gospel if we’re all publishers?

We may joke about it, saying things like, “well, if it’s on the internet, it must be true!” But when we see something published, we do tend to give it more credence. Especially if it’s written well, laid out well and has a nice masthead or photo. It’s human nature. 

However, with everyone able to publish and make it look good, the liars, exaggerators and just plain misinformed all have a platform to tell their stories. We love a good story. They’re hard to resist. It’s so much easier to believe something if you want to than to take the 10 minutes to check out the facts. 

So, what are we to do? As we become more connected in real time, are we doomed to gobble up lies and facts in the same hungry mouthfuls? What do you think?

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk