Navigating the MSU information universe

April 13, 2022 3:00 am

(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

In a 1993 Peter Steiner cartoon, a large hound sitting in a chair at a computer monitor and keyboard tells a small terrier watching from below, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Or if you’re telling the truth.

Chances are good, however, that what we read in the social media megaverse is unvarnished bunk.

Too many travelers along the information superhighway are jamming it with MSU: Making Stuff Up. The more profane among you may substitute the noun, but either way, determining the truth online generally, and on social media specifically, calls for a healthy dose of discernment and doubt.

Staying with the four-legged, furry theme for a minute, Nebraskans and, sadly, the rest of the world, know that Nebraska State Sen. Bruce Bostelman recently took to the floor of the Legislature, where he insisted school children were dressing as felines and canines and clamoring for litter boxes in restrooms.

He said, “School children dress up as animals — cats or dogs — during the school day; they meow, and they bark. And now schools are wanting to put litter boxes in the schools for these children to use. How is this sanitary?”

Unfortunately, Bostelman’s appeal for propriety and hygiene came before he learned the “furries” litter-box incidents were made up, part of an ongoing Facebook myth — two words trending toward redundancy.

For his cart and horse trouble, he was called out, if not downright ridiculed, in Nebraska and across the country. One Nebraska newspaper editorial, while taking him to a well-earned task, admonished all social media users to be more responsible and quit posting baloney.

Excellent idea … except those days left us about the time Mark Zuckerberg added the “Like” button to Facebook (2009 if you’re keeping score at home.)

Here’s what social media users can do: Acquire some media literacy. Quit buying the baloney.

Such is the state of information consumption in an MSU world, whether you are a creator or a carrier of lies, damned lies and doggone lies.

In “Post-Truth” (MIT Press 2018), author Lee McIntyre describes his book’s title as a universe where “alternative facts” replace real ones, where feelings are more important than facts and where “psychological blind spots [cause] the public’s retreat into ‘information silos’’’ — echo chambers where we seek out only information that reaffirms what we already believe.

The people who study such self-limiting thinking call it “confirmation bias,” the science of which, ironically, is rejected by those who choose not to believe the people who study such things — confirming their biases.

Where’s a typing Labrador when we need one?

Those same social scientists also study something called the Illusory Truth Effect, which says when we hear the same information over and over again, we begin to believe it is true, even when we know it is clearly fiction.

So clicks, retweets and likes replace truth. And feelings erode the power of objective facts, the things on which we used to agree.

MSU is sometimes crafted with a deft hand, other times with a cudgel. But for consumers of information already sold on an idea –– read “feels right” –– it makes little difference whether the data is distorted, deceptive or simply a lie.

Fake news, conspiracy theories and assorted propaganda — common products of MSU — cover a breathtaking range of nonsense, from eye-rolling posts of an Elvis sighting or litter boxes in school bathrooms to the false narratives in Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaign to justify Russia’s invasion of and horrific brutality in Ukraine.

The floor of the Nebraska Legislature falls somewhere in between, reason enough that Bostelman’s toe-stubbing should concern us not for its cringeworthiness or even its comic effect, but rather for the questions it poses: How, from where and from whom do Nebraska lawmakers gather the facts necessary to create effective laws and public policy?

And which of their biases are part of the process?

We’ve all been fooled, duped or punked with a Facebook post or a tweet or a snap. Some of us have even acted on the misinformation … in my experience a truly awkward reality for a supposedly seasoned journalist.

Today’s MSU-driven mythology is at once sinister and silly. But we’re well past curbing social media users’ appetite for making stuff up.

All of which requires us as information consumers to employ some savvy, some skepticism, a credible database if needed and, if I may, a dogged pursuit of the truth.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.