Misinformation: Who’s at fault, the creator or the user?

Image by 5598375 from Pixabay

Note: This post contains spoilers for the American, Brazilian, and French versions of The Circle on Netflix because somehow I’m still talking about that show even though everyone else either doesn’t seem to know it exists or is long since over it.

Until recently, there was an exercise that I liked to use in my credit-bearing information literacy course where I asked students to read a news article about an incident that occurred in 2010: a fourth grade history textbook that was being used in Virginia classroom was found to contain egregious historical errors. Interestingly, the big headline at the time wasn’t about how different students in different states might learn completely different stories about the history of their country. Instead, they all focused on criticizing the textbook’s author (who was not a historian) for using the internet as her main source of information.

Specifically, the textbook stated that many slaves fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War, a piece of information that is not supported by historical evidence but is promoted by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who created one of the internet sources that the author cites.

As part of the activity, I asked students to weigh in on who they thought bore the most responsibility for what happened: the textbook’s author for citing an inaccurate source, the publisher for publishing a book with inaccurate information, the school system for not properly vetting the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for creating the misleading source in the first place. They were required to rank the choices from “most guilty” to “least guilty.”

The answers about who bears the most guilt changed a lot over time. For the first few years I taught this lesson, students generally placed the most blame on the author for doing her research on the internet. As doing your research on the internet become more acceptable, students shifted the blame to the school system for not properly vetting the book. Almost no one blames the publisher or the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

I think this brings up an interesting question. True, the author based her research on a source that contained misleading information. She should have been more careful.(1) But the Sons of Confederate Veterans are the ones who created the misleading information in the first place. They did so knowingly and for the purpose of promoting an unsupported view of history in order to advance a political agenda. Why are students so sure that this group bears none of the blame in this incident?

I thought about this again when I was watching The Circle on Netflix recently and thinking about the interesting ways even a trashy reality show about social media can connect to information literacy. If you’re not familiar, The Circle is a reality competition series where players don’t meet in person and communicate only through a social network called (wait for it) the Circle. Some players play more or less as themselves (or some idealized version of themselves) using their real names and pictures. Other players play as catfish, using someone else’s pictures. Sometimes they pair these pictures with fictionalized biographies and names, sometimes they use their real biographies and names.

One of the more exciting things about The Circle in all the incarnations that I’ve seen (including the American, French, and Brazilian ones available on Netflix) is seeing a) how well the catfish do at pretending to be other people when that’s part of their goal and b) seeing the catfish get revealed to the other players. This reveal can happen in a couple of ways. Eliminated players get to meet one other player in person before they make their exit. They also leave a good-bye message for the whole group, thus revealing to the other players whether they are “real” or not. Meanwhile, players who make it to the end all get to meet each other before the results of the final vote are revealed. So if there are any catfish among the finalists, that’s when everyone still in the game gets to find out.

Interestingly, many of the catfish on the show express at least some mixed feelings about the ethics of what they’re doing. Whether those doubts are sincere or not is up for debate, but either way they all have to manipulate and lie to the other players about who they are in order to maintain their mask and when that mask is removed, they have to face the consequences. Which leads to some pretty awkward situations when the guys who pretend to be girls come face-to-face with the players they flirted with as part of their strategy.(2)

The reactions we see to finding out someone was a catfish are ultimately good-natured, once the initial shock has passed (assuming there is any—some catfish are better than others). But in real life, misrepresenting yourself online, whether you’re using a completely fictionalized persona or just lying about your age or relationship status (as even the non-catfish players on The Circle frequently do), is much more complicated. Some people lie because they worry that others won’t like them for who they really are. Other people lie because they’re deliberately trying to manipulate or take advantage of someone else.

But whose fault is it when someone falls for those lies? Is it the person who got duped by the fake profile for not thinking critically about the information they’re seeing or the person who created that misinformation in the first place?

I would be interested to see what my students would say about this. I have a feeling a lot of them would blame the person who falls for the fake information, just like they blame the textbook author for not properly evaluating her sources. The person who lied was just playing the social media game, so to speak. Even if they weren’t literally a player on The Circle.

I’m not sure I entirely agree but I guess it’s just as well that so many students I’ve worked with seem to think this way. In the end, they can change their own thinking and behaviors when it comes to the way they interact with information but they can’t change whether or not someone else chooses to put misleading information out there for one reason or another.

*

  1. Assuming this was an honest mistake and not an effort to promote her own political agenda or something that she included in order to support the state’s preferred curriculum.
  2. SPOILER: Romain’s reaction to finding out about Valeria in the French version is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on a reality series. He just seems so horrified yet he can’t stop laughing and it goes on for, like, ten minutes. (P.S. I loved Romain but “Valeria” totally should have won. Fight me.)

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