If “No News is Good News”, what is Fake News?

I was still in grade school when this crazy thing we call the Internet really started to take off. I can still remember the day when our school got it’s first public-use computer. My best friend and I were two of the students chosen to check it out first. I can remember one of the first things we did was to set up our very first Hotmail email accounts. It was all rather exciting.

Since then the Internet has only grown and grown. It has become a place of endless information. A person can type almost anything into Google and come back with hundreds, if not thousands, of results. The Internet has allowed us to share news, information, thoughts and feelings, habits and hobbies, and anything else we can think of with people from the opposite side of the planet and everywhere in between. For the first time in human history we can know exactly what is going on on the other side of world as it is happening. That’s pretty damn amazing.

But while the ever-expanding World Wide Web is filled with a great many wonderful and helpful things, it is also rife with pitfalls and truly excellent methods to make one look excruciatingly foolish. Everything has become so fast, so instant, and so often irreversible, that it only takes a moment of not thinking clearly or a quick slip of the finger in order to do something dumb. It takes half a second to hit a “like” or “share” button, and in this day of rushed moments and instant gratification we often do so without even bothering to look twice at the thing that we’re allying ourselves with publicly.

The worst offenders of this, in my opinion, are Facebook users sharing “news”.

Facebook has become a great place to share things that are important to us. If we see a news report talking about something we feel strongly about, it is a simple thing for us to share that report on our Facebook wall where we know that it will be seen, and possibly re-shared, by our friends and family and hopefully lots of other people as well. This is a great way to get important issues out there.

It’s also a great way to make yourself look like a moron.

Too often, I’ve found, people have become apt to “like”, “share”, and leave complicated, emotion-fueled comments in response to big, scary-looking news stories…without ever once bothering to read the story.

This past Black Friday there was a very scary-sounding story floating around Facebook. It described a number of brutal deaths at the hands of insane shoppers, including one woman who had stabbed another woman to death in order to secure the last XBox One in Walmart. When I saw the story pop up on my Facebook feed I immediately raised a skeptical eyebrow and clicked on the link to read the whole article. It quickly became evident that the article was a joke. It got more and more foolish as it went on, describing complete nonsense and throwing several outright, completely obvious lies in near the end. Anyone who took the two minutes required to read the entire article would easily figure out that it was a load of bull. If they took an extra five seconds to Google the name of the news source they’d have found out that that particular website was a joke and satire news site, much like The Onion. Everything they report is made up.

From what I saw on my Facebook feed over the following few days, my husband and I were some of the only people who bothered to take that two minutes and five seconds out of our day. Multiple people on my Facebook feed shared that story, along with angry comments about how Black Friday is evil and the big corporations who support it should be ashamed of themselves. One such friend actually argued with people who commented back to tell him that the article was fake, only giving in when people started quoting the ridiculous end parts of the article that he hadn’t actually bothered to read.

These things happen on a daily basis now-a-days because people are much more willing to take the one second required to hit “share” than the two minutes required to fact-check and see whether the thing they’re sharing is true or not. It’s an extremely lazy reaction that allows false information to thrive, and makes otherwise intelligent people look like emotion-driven fools.

Recently Colorado decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Immediately afterward Facebook feeds were pasted with the sensational headline, “Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization”. People were losing their minds over this headline, and as well they should have…had it been even the tiniest bit true. The article was posted on a website called The Daily Currant, a website which, when searched for on Google, comes up with the subtitle: The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record. But no one bothered to visit the website. They simply saw the headline, got mad, and shared the link without ever looking into the facts. Whether you agree or disagree with the legalization of marijuana, this is a terrible method for getting your point across.

We are emotional creatures, it’s true. We hate waiting and love moving at breakneck speeds. It’s in our nature. But when we use the internet in the manner I’ve described above, we make ourselves look stupid. We paint a picture of ourselves as gullible fools and destroy any faith that others may have in us as a reliable source. We ruin our image. And a lot of the time, no one even bothers to let us know how foolish we’ve been, because fools like to try to argue and defend themselves, which only makes them look even more foolish.

I won’t claim that I’ve never fallen for such a thing myself – I’m fairly certain all of us have tripped over a false claim here and there – but I will point out that blindly believing in something that sparks an emotional reaction is how we end up with situations like this.

Do a little research, friends. The same tool that allows you to share big scary news reports with everyone you’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met, is the same tool that can help you get your facts straight in just a few short moments.

“Oh, THAT Bookmarked Site? Uh…I Can Explain That…Really!”

I’ve often heard it said that you’re not a real writer until you’ve landed yourself on a government security watch list, and I’m starting to understand the reasoning behind that statement.

nsakittyRealism is an important aspect of any good novel, even if the subject matter in general is not particularly realistic. For example, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel. To enjoy the subject matter you have to be able to suspend disbelief and have a bit of an open mind, but for specific details – things that you would actually see in real life – realism is key to keep your readers from pitching unholy fits. Imagine, for example, if I wrote a scene involving a character taking shots at zombies with a rifle and I completely screw up the way a rifle works. Any of my readers who have ever actually handled a rifle in real life are going to find themselves drawn away from the story, eyebrows twitching in annoyance, because it’s obvious that I wrote that scene awash in a sea of ignorance. It might not seem like much to anyone who (like me) knows nothing about guns, but if you screw up enough of those little details you’re going to have quite the angry reader mob beating down your door, ready, willing, and able to tell you exactly why your writing stinks.

Knowing that, we writers have an excellent tool on hand to ensure that these unrealistic scenes are kept to a minimum: the Internet. We live in a golden age where the information we need is never more than a few clicks away. There are webpages devoted to everything, and even if we can’t find the specific subject we require, there are forums, chat-rooms, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of other social sites where we can ask for help. The Internet is a writer’s goldmine.

So what does all this have to do with the first sentence of this post? Well, occasionally, when writers are researching details for their novel via the Internet, things get a little…unsettling.

As mentioned, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel, and for that task I’ve taken to the World Wide Web to nail down a few important details. Imagine if you will, for a moment, if someone were to take a look at my browser history right now and came across the following searches:

“techniques used to tell how long a body has been dead”
“how much blood would there be if someone’s arm was ripped off”
“how to splint a broken leg with no medical gear”
“how to make a Molotov cocktail”
“how to butcher a cow”
“how long until a body begins to decompose”

Starting to see the problem?

There’s a certain level of insanity involved in being a writer, and I think that this is where half of it comes from. In order to make our novels realistic we have to research things that are otherwise creepy and/or upsetting. On the “Reference Desk” forums of the NaNoWriMo website (where writers help each other track down the info they need) I have seen some of the weirdest questions you can imagine, ranging from “what the hell do you need to know that for?” weird to “okay, give me your address because I’m calling the cops” weird.

So remember this the next time you’re reading one of your favorite books: we writers willingly make ourselves look like justifiable psychos in order to make that story the best that it can be.

You’re welcome.

As a reader, have you ever come across any small, incorrect details that ruined a book for you? As a writer, have you ever been accused of ruining a story with small, incorrect details? Have you ever found yourself searching ridiculous, scary, or downright disturbing things in order to make a story better? Please share!

The Golden Internet Rule

Yesterday on her blog Kristen Lamb spoke about the “three NEVERs” of social media. Without going into too much detail (you can check out her post if you really want to know…it’s a good one!), what the “three NEVERs” basically break down to are “don’t be a jerk to people on the internet because it could come back to bite you in the ass”.

It’s a good point, one that I thought could bear repeating, because so many people are so very, very bad for this. A lot of times it’s unintentional – people say terrible things in the heat of the moment, and social media makes it possible to express those terrible things immediately and to millions of people – but many and more times it’s just people being flat-out jackasses.

The anonymity of the internet gives people a false sense of security in being able to act like a jerk without consequences, but what most people fail to realize is that the internet isn’t as anonymous as it appears. If people really want to, they will track you down, and most of the time we make it very, very easy. How many of us have Facebook accounts, linked to Twitter accounts, linked to personal websites, linked to forum usernames, and so on and so on? And once something is on the internet, it’s pretty much there to stay. Just ask the plethora of celebrities that have tried to have unflattering images cleansed from the world wide web, only to have a billion and one more copies pop up in the blink of an eye.

As kids (I’m looking at you, know-it-all-teens) we can be forgiven a bit of stupidity…we think we know better, and later on we find out we’re wrong and (hopefully) smarten up a bit. But as adults, and professionals, this kind of bad behavior is unforgivable and just plain idiotic.

Recently an old schoolmate of mine posted a status update on Facebook. She’d done an interview on a prospective new hire for her employer, and afterwards went on Facebook to look up the interviewee, as many companies are wont to do these days. What she found was a scathing remark about how the prospective hire had apparently had to dumb down everything he said so the “moron” doing his interview could understand him. What do you think…did she hire him?

It’s a sad truth that people simply don’t think when posting their every thought and whim on the internet. They don’t take two seconds to think about the possible consequences of what they’re about to say. Everyone is guilty of this, even me, but some offenses are much worse than others.

I’ll give a personal example. Though I haven’t been the victim of many trolls or cruel internet japes in my day, I did come across one particular individual during the time I spent at the Critique Circle. This individual seemed to take a deep pleasure in writing scathing critiques of everything he came across. Nothing he read was good enough for him; everything was drivel, pretentious, blatent wish-fulfillment, and so on and so on. Nothing he said was constructive, he simply enjoyed telling everybody he came across how absolutely terrible their writing was in every way. The result? Very simple: no one would critique any of his work. On a site where the entire point is to upload your work and have people beta-read it, he’d ostrasized himself so that no one would touch anything he wrote with a (digital) fifty foot pole.

It all boils down to this: when you’re about to write a Facebook status update, Tweet something, or make a comment on someone’s blog or website, consider for a moment the impression you’re creating and the possible consequences you might incur. You wouldn’t tell an interviewer to their face that you think they’re a drooling moron, so why would you say it online where that same person could easily find it? You wouldn’t tell your editor or publisher that you think everything they do is crap, so why would you say the same thing to people who are supposed to be helping you become a better writer for free?

I’ve heard it said a million times, but rarely do most people seem to listen. None-the-less, I’ll say it again because it needs to be said:

If there’s someone you wouldn’t want reading it, don’t post it on the internet.

Have you ever said or done anything stupid on the internet that you later regretted? Have you ever been in a position to “reward” someone for being stupid on the internet? What are your thoughts on this lovely digital trend of ours? Please share!

The 12 Posts of Christmas

Since I began this blog almost 10 months ago (10 months!), I have regularly scanned the world wide web in search of ideas for posts. These searches would invariably turn up any number of blog post challenges, and those who have followed my blog will recognize that I’ve taken part in several of these challenges. In fact, I haven’t yet completed the 101 Blog Post Ideas list. But that list will have to wait for the new year because I have decided (after one of the aforementioned internet searches came up fruitless) that I am going to start a blog challenge of my very own. Introducing:

The 12 Blog Posts of Christmas

12. Uh oh…Christmas is coming fast and you’ve got presents to buy! Write about your shopping strategy and your feelings on the yearly panic.

11. One of the best things about Christmas is the food. Write about your favorite holiday treats and maybe even share some recipes!

10. Kids get SO excited over some presents. Write about a particular toy or other present that made you lose your mind on Christmas day when you were a child.

9. Depressing, perhaps, but we don’t always get what we want for Christmas. Write about the present you’re still waiting for.

8. Decorating can be half the fun or it can be the most dreaded part of the season. Write about which it is for you and why.

7. Nothing says “Christmas” like watching the holiday specials on TV. Write about the specials you watch every year and which are your favorites.

6. Toot your horn a little… Write about (in your opinion) the best gift you’ve ever given.

5. Presents are awesome at any age. Write about the best present you ever received for Christmas, whether as a child or an adult.

4. As much as we love Christmas, there are aspects of it that can drive us insane. Write about the most frustrating parts of Christmas for you.

3. We all have our own particular Christmas traditions. Write about some of yours.

2. Admit it…you tried to sneak a peek at a present or stay up all night and catch Santa when you were a kid. Write about Christmas sneakery you performed as a child.

1. Happy Holidays! Write about your hopes and plans for this Christmas!

I’ll be starting the list tomorrow, and I sincerely hope that a few people will come across this list and decide to write some posts along with me! If you do decide to take my list and use it on your own blog or other social media, I would greatly appreciate it if you would send a link-back my way. Inversely, if you would like to let me know that you’re planning to use this list, I’ll be happy to mention it at the end of my posts and send a link your way as well!

Happy Holidays everyone! The 12 Posts of Christmas start tomorrow!