Sitting in a waiting room and browsing the web, three examples of poor fact checking bubble into my ‘stream’:

  1. First, you know the story about how NASA spent millions developing a pen that would write in space, while the Russians used pencils? Turns out that’s not true. In fact a private company developed the ‘space pen‘ after it became clear that pencils were a massive fire hazard and nuisance. (h/t @will_full).
    Moral: Sometimes the simplest solution is a huge Health & Safety Nightmare.
  2. Last week there was a little social media storm when a chap called Elan Gale ‘live-tweeted’ an argument he had on an aeroplane with a woman named Diane. I followed the story at the time: it was satisfying because Gale exhibited the nerve and spontaneity that most of us only know as l’esprit de l’escalier. But his attitude and language was quite abrasive and sexist which led to controversy and plenty of online comment.
    Anyway, that turns out to have been a hoax too. Gale is a TV writer and clearly knows how to entertain. “Diane” is a fictional character.
  3. Finally, and more seriously: do you remember the hideous story last week about social workers organising a “forced cæsarian-section“? That turns out to be false too. According to the court reports, the c-section was ordered at the request of psychiatrists and obstetricians because the mothers previous medical history put her at risk of a ruptured uterus, and she could not consent to the procedure herself. Carl Gardner has a long but incredibly important critique of how this story was reported by Christopher Brooker and John Hemming MP.

In the first two of these stories, its the Internet at fault. The urban myths and viral tweets spread from user-to-user. No-one thinks to fact-check the narrative until a journalist with some standards looks into the background of the story.
But at other times, the media is complicit in spreading the lie. In the “forced cæsarian” case this seems to be because the story reinforces pre-existing views about social workers. But more often than not, it happens because of a relentless search for clicks and reads and eyeballs, a collective modus operandi that produces a vast amount of guff on a very short cycle. Charlie Brooker explained the process succinctly in his final column for the Guardian earlier this year.
“Information is power” they tell us, and the Internet is supposed to have made us more informed than ever before. But with great power comes great responsibility. Along with lessons in computer literacy (and maybe coding) we all need education in media and social media ontology. How do we tell fact from fiction?

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