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Jakarta Post

Believing everything you read can make real world problems

  • The Jakarta Post

    The Jakarta Post

Taipei, Taiwan   /   Thu, January 30, 2014   /  06:31 pm

Did you hear that North Korea claimed to have landed a man on the sun? The story that the reclusive, Stalinist state sent a 17-year-old astronaut to the '€œfar side'€ of the sun after a four hour journey, and that he would soon be landing back in North Korea, spread across the Internet last Friday. Backed up with a screenshot of a North Korean state television announcer in front of a picture of a rocket lifting off, many websites in the English- and Chinese-speaking worlds spread the report.

It was, of course, ridiculous. Our sun doesn't have a surface to land on, and if it did the radiation and heat put out would incinerate any man-made object before it could even come close. It seemed like North Korea was just making up wild claims for propaganda purposes again.

But as it turns out the story of the story wasn't true, either. North Korea never claimed they had gone to the sun, on state TV or otherwise. A brief Google search reveals that no major news organisations carried the story, and websites that did carry it had no video or transcripts from the alleged announcement. Further online backtracking indicates that the story originated on a website that clearly states it is satire.

So why did people around the world believe it? It could be because North Korea is notorious for producing ridiculous stories. For people only familiar with North Korea through the occasional news story about their more outlandish antics, North Korea is already a satire of a country.

But our rush to believe is also related to the fact that it is human nature to believe things that confirm our prejudices. This can be relatively harmless, such as the case of the North Korea story, or it can reveal a deeper, more disturbing prejudice.

A story making the rounds in the United States concerns the '€œknockout game'€. Media outlets report that certain segments of the population are filming themselves hitting random people and then posting a video online. If the stories are to be believed, this is a serious problem. Opinion pieces are calling for legislation to punish perpetrators and decrying the fact that more isn't being done.

Just like the North Korea story, it isn't true. There is no '€œknockout game'€ epidemic sweeping the US. A closer look reveals that practically every incident reported as a potential example has not held up under further scrutiny, instead turning out to be just a mundane instance of the dozens of normal assaults that occur daily in the US Also, the idea that people would film themselves committing a crime and then post that video on the Internet is a bit silly upon further thought.

But the media, no matter what country they are from, has never let facts get in the way of a good outrage.

So how are the two stories similar? Because the key reported fact of the '€œknockout game'€ isn't '€œa random person attacking other random people'€. The key fact of the story is '€œblack people attack random white people.'€ It doesn't take too much of a leap to figure out what prejudice this is playing into.

There are two points to take away here. The first, obviously, is don't believe everything you read, be it online, in a newspaper or reported on TV. The Internet has made disseminating incorrect stories incredibly easy. And, because the stories are presented using a '€œprofessional'€ tone and are printed up all nice on a website, we are far more likely to believe that they are true. We, as media consumers, must train ourselves to always dig deeper and verify if what we are reading is true before forwarding it to all of our online acquaintances. A good rule is to just automatically assume a story is false until you do further research, even if it comes from a reputable news organization.

The second point is that false online stories can do more than just make you feel silly when you find out they are not true. A false story can cause real damage, as was seen earlier this month when rumours circulated that the health of Morris Chang, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd., was failing. The company's stock fell by 2.88 percent in what the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) is now investigating as a deliberate attempt to manipulate the stock.

Whether they cause real financial impact or '€œonly'€ perpetuate old prejudices and fears about other people, the price of believing everything you see online can be very real. Please browse accordingly.

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