Technology has advanced at a rate faster than society can adapt. Though there have been outstanding benefits, we are struggling to compensate in terms of our domestic economy and labor force, security, and our role in the global arena. Technology also ushered us quickly into the Information Age, drastically changing the way we learn and communicate. The Internet has been a game-changer in many, many ways. Answers can be found in seconds, information can be immediately shared with millions of people, communities can be formed outside of the constraints of time and location. Likewise, opinion can be masqueraded as fact, false research can be presented as legitimate, and what you share publicly can potentially affect millions. While the Internet isn’t exactly new, online communication is becoming increasingly powerful due to constant access to the Internet via cell phone and the ever-growing popularity of social media.
With the rise of social media we also saw the rise of the meme. Dictionary.com defines a meme as “a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.” It’s true that the vast number of memes we have seen in social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) have been innocent enough representations of humor, inspiration, and, well, cuteness. As it is an election year, however, heated social issues have arisen in our public consciousness, and our collective social media presence reflects that. The formerly innocuous meme has been repurposed as propaganda in the sociopolitical landscape. When propaganda is shared and presented as fact it becomes a dangerous tool. There is only one defense against such an onslaught–critical thinking.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. “- Aristotle
Critical thinking is defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” What does that mean, exactly? At it’s most basic, it means that you apply the same rules of logic to any concept or statement, without pre-judgement (emotional or otherwise), and you require high standards of evidence. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are particularly vulnerable to propoganda on social media because critical thinking was not taught in the K-12 public school system, although it is generally a required class in college. Thankfully, the public school system is now working to incorporate critical thinking skills into the curriculum. Another disadvantage for those of us who grew up pre-Internet is that we received limited education on how to evaluate source material (we had no where near as many sources available) and no education on how to evaluate online source material. Despite this, we must adapt to the fact that the Information Age is also the Misinformation Age, and that the burden of proof will have to fall on the shoulders of the individual.
When it comes to learning and sharing information online, there are two issues that have to be resolved within each person. First, what is the validity of the sources one is using to inform their own positions, and, second, is it socially responsible to share unsubstantiated information or information from an invalid source as if it is true? The temptation for many people is to actively seek out websites, blogs and online communities that reaffirm their own beliefs, no matter if they are sources of legitimate information or not. When you then take that illegitamite information and share it publicly in the form of a meme or written post you are, in fact, spreading propaganda. Then other people become informed by the same illegitimate information–and so it goes on and on. People then take that information into their daily conversations and use it to shape their decisions.
Don’t we have freedom of speech? Of course we do…which is all the more reason to be discerning about your sources. I would also argue that we have a social responsibility not to engage in the spread of propaganda–especially on issues that affect our society at large. So what should you do? When you read something on the internet, consider the source. If it’s opinion, recognize it as such and subject it to the rigors of critical thought. If it is presented as factual, look at the source site. Is it a legitimate news site? Is the content extreme? Is it covered in advertising? Are there references? Take a minute to validate the information even if it is supportive of your beliefs. Likewise, when you see a political meme in your social media feed, do not just promptly hit the share button. Once again, consider the source it came from, do a quick Internet search to verify the content…and most of all, think critically about the content. Only share if it is valid. Remember, we will only solve our social problems if we can engage in meaningful discourse. Without critical thinking, that is not possible.