The broomstick hoax that swept the nation recently is another example of how people are ready to believe anything they see or read on social media without question.
The hoax was not the fact that, with a bit of patience, it is possible to balance a broom. That can be done anytime. It was the suggestion that it was only possible on one certain day due to an increase in the gravitational pull of the Earth.
It is not necessary to be a rocket scientist or indeed any kind of scientist to realize that the gravity is not wildly different on certain days.
As the hoax went viral, photos and videos of brooms popped up all over the internet. People posting these images marveled about how “it really does work.”
A Washington Post story indicated the hoax began with a tweet from a Howard University student who claimed that NASA had announced that “today was the only day a broom can stand up on its own because of the gravitational pull.”
A reasonable person, given time to think about it, would no doubt realize that NASA has better things to do than to encourage tricks with brooms.
Of course, NASA had nothing to do with this “announcement.”
Fortunately for those of us who live on this planet, the gravity doesn’t change much. It certainly is not subject to wild swings based on exterior factors.
Another entertaining aspect of the hoax was the suggestion it applied only to brooms.
As the Post article correctly pointed out, “The laws of physics possess no particular proclivity toward household cleaning tools.”
Brooms have a low center of gravity, so if a person is looking for something to balance, that would be a good place to start.
The broom challenge is a good reminder of the importance of checking facts before spreading posts or images.
This is even more critical in view of the position of Facebook and Twitter. These platforms refuse to remove content, including videos, that deliberately mislead people.
Facebook’s policy on manipulated media is fascinating.
Essentially, it states that, as long as the person actually said something, it is fair game, even if it is taken completely out of context and manipulated in a way that makes it seem like something different.
That rationalization is terrifying.
If we follow that line of thinking, it would be perfectly acceptable to take anything a person said, re-arrange it, and combine it with other elements to make it appear that they were saying just about anything.
As technology continues to improve and charlatans get more adept at manipulating it, it will be increasingly difficult for the average person to spot a video or photo that has been edited.
Not only can we not believe everything we read; we can’t believe everything we see or hear, either.
Attempts to mislead people by altering images is not new, but those attempting to do so are getting better at doing it.
It is unlikely we will be able to stop people who are determined to lie to the public on social media, but there are things we can do to reduce the chance of our becoming pawns in their game.
Maintaining a healthy attitude of skepticism goes a long way toward identifying disinformation.
Checking reliable sources is an excellent way to evaluate the accuracy of information.
And applying skepticism and verification BEFORE blindly sharing or forwarding dubious information is the best defense of all.