Not too many years ago, serious people were holding workshops and seminars touting the transformative power of social media. Twitter and Facebook were new tools that could expose more people to critical information about politics and social justice, raise awareness of suffering and human rights abuses, and organize activists to check and even overthrow tyrannical governments. Now, those same serious people mock online “slacktivists” who think for a moment that Tweeting or sharing on Facebook does anything to make the world a better place.
So much difference a few years can make. It didn’t take long for government and corporations to seize control (or tighten control, as they already controlled the entire system) of the information flow on the Internet. Worse, government agencies, police forces, and corporate legal departments used information from social media to track and punish activists.
Worse still, various groups for diverse reasons poisoned the supply of information on the Internet till it was next to impossible to separate factual information, propaganda, satire, and hoaxes. Enough professional journalists from respected news outlets have been exposed for plagiarism and fabrication to make readers and viewers suspicious of all news outlets, and some people now actually believe that propaganda mills are more reliable than once-trusted journalistic outlets.
Further, accusations of plagiarism, ghostwriting, and fraud have even plagued scientific and medical journals, raising legitimate suspicions about the reliability of scientific literature. With major papers being retracted in large numbers in pharmaceutical and medical journals, it becomes more believable for some that climate scientists may be perpetuating some kind of elaborate hoax. While experts are clearly more qualified to evaluate the quality of scientific data than untrained observers, sadly, most people feel they are quite competent to pass judgment on scientific work. “Everyone has a right to an opinion” has become, “All opinions should be taken equally seriously.”
In spite of constant assaults on truth, we still share information, because that is part of what humans do. The human appetite for information has resulted in some positive developments. Scientists are demanding more transparency and data sharing. Independent groups are publicizing retractions, publishing data that contradicts earlier published reports, and demanding that funding sources be revealed. Journalists are holding each other and public officials to greater scrutiny, and many are realizing the importance of good investigative journalism. And members of the “general public” are taking greater care to check sources and look at new information skeptically.
Still, misleading information such as propaganda often comes from powerful sources, and it will not go away. Perhaps, though, we will see a revival of skeptical inquiry and analysis. Perhaps more people will begin to follow the advice to hold beliefs only in proportion to the available evidence.
In the meantime, I see no reason to mock those who find information and post it on social media, even if that is all they do for the cause. Social media “slactivism” may seem like the least one can possibly do, but for some it is also the most they can do. If someone doesn’t have the time, energy, or skills to do more, then so be it.