Genesee County Police Waste Time Chasing Facebook Fake News
Facebook can be a great tool for getting the word out about a great many things. It can also be an unbelievable time suck. Unfortunately, the latter has been true when it comes to local police resources of late.
Before we get started, I will admit that we've done our share of reporting unconfirmed stories from Facebook before. In those instances, our staff knows to be very careful about how those stories are presented, and we do our best to let the reader know that what they're reading is hearsay and should not be taken as fact without further supporting evidence.
You see, a lot of these stories present opportunities to remind people of very real threats, such as human trafficking, child abduction, financial scams, etc. Therefore, regardless of whether they're true or not, we get to say "while this incident may turn out to be false, you should always be safe when..." As an editor and a member of the community -- I personally see a ton of value in that type of reporting. Sadly, that's not how most of this stuff is interpreted by a largely checked out community.
Take for instance the incident at hand, where a someone reported an attempted abduction at a Swartz Creek Kroger location. The story went wide on social media. So much so, that the Genesee County Police launched an investigation into the alleged incident, of which they had no prior knowledge. That's right, not even a 911 call. After devoting several precious hours man hours of police work to the investigation, it was determined that the story was just that -- it was a hoax.
A few weeks ago, I saw one of these stories spin out of control. Skip ahead if you've heard this one, but it was about a white van abducting kids. There was only one confirmed incident of this, which was caught on camera. Shortly after that, everyone started posting about seeing the white van in their area and warning people on Facebook. Some even posted pictures. The only problem is that there are a ton of white vans and every picture featured a different van. I wrote about that very inconsistency with a huge amount of skepticism in the article, but it was largely ignored.
To my great displeasure, I noticed my story on the "white van" actually made things worse. The article had 803 shares on our Facebook post alone, reaching almost 40,000 people. Do you know how many of those people read the full article? About 1,800. Anyone who's ever spent any time sharing content on Facebook will tell you that's a grossly disproportionate ratio.
So what does that mean? It means a bunch of people read the headline, and spread the hysteria even further, without any regard for the details or nuances of the story -- the exact opposite of my objective. I was trying to encourage critical thinking and skepticism when dealing with these unconfirmed incidents and failed miserably. Apparently, that's too much to ask of people these days.
Everyone would rather share an easily debunked conspiracy theory on Facebook than spend a few seconds trying to vet the sources of said story. Hell, most people won't even take the time to read more than a headline. Other times, people will ask Facebook a question that would be easily answered by typing the same words into Google, something I wrote at length about a couple of weeks ago in connection to the Bruno Mars conspiracy theories. It's a frustrating time to be both a concerned citizen or a member of the media... and an especially frustrating to be both.
We have to do better at information, people. We need to learn how to read news and identify credible sources. We need to do our homework and not take things at face value. We need to stop screaming "fake news" every time we hear something that challenges our beliefs. We need to read not just the headline, but the whole article... and maybe a few articles about one issue from different sources. We need to try. Otherwise, we'll all just be chasing our tails and nothing will ever get accomplished.