There was a story circulating a few years ago claiming that a mountain lion was hit by a truck in Pennsylvania and urging people to spread the news. The claim was accompanied by a picture of a man with a big dead cat and also included mention of Game Commission denial.
This story was red meat for those of my friends who were already suspicious of the state officials (who maintained there was lack of credible evidence that mountain lions roamed the state forests) and was confirming proof to them. The story included a photographic evidence, did it not? How could it not be credible and proof of a cover-up, right?
As it turns out the same photo has been used in many stories to make different claims. It is a real photo. However, according to more credible sources, the photo was taken in Arizona and not in Pennsylvania or the many other places where internet stories claimed the animal was hit. The story that the mountain lion was hit in Pennsylvania is apparently a lie.
So, why would a person be so suspicious and skeptical of one source (like the PA Game Commission) and yet be so gullible as to fall for an internet hoax from a random source? Why trust a complete stranger who we have no way of knowing if the information they give is trustworthy or true while disbelieving sources that are at least somewhat accountable and knowable?
It comes back to confirmation bias or the idea that people will be more accepting of evidence that confirms their existing beliefs or biases. Those who accepted the story as true already believed the truth was being hidden by the government and thus didn’t feel need to check the credibility of the claim. They pick up and run with whatever tickled their existing partisan fancy.
I understand confirmation bias. But it is difficult for me to understand why people are so easily duped by internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories from spurious sources. It is especially difficult for me to understand how people can be so cynical of mainstream sources and then simultaneously accepting of a story posted by some random person on the internet. It should be opposite, we should be more skeptical of a little known source and less mistrusting of those more known.
Time and time again I see stories posted by friends on social media, I do my due diligence to research the claim and oftentimes find it is a myth or hoax. In an age of Photoshop pictures can be easily doctored. Credentials can be fabricated to make an appeal to authority and I am instantly skeptical when someone uses that type of appeal rather than concrete evidence and sound logic.
Good cases aren’t bolstered by bad arguments. True stories do not need fake photos or deceptive use of facts. By using (or linking) unreliable information as proof of an idea a person is actually hurting their chances of convincing intelligent people who disagree and are potentially making a mockery of themselves.
Lies and fraudulent claims used to promote a moral argument are especially inexcusable. I can understand why corrupt politicians and calculated propagandists distort evidence trying to gain power from the ignorance of their constituency. I can also understand why immoral people fabricate stories and try to deceive for entertainment or whatever reason. But what I cannot accept is false information used by those who are claiming the moral high ground. It is hypothetical at worse and dangerous ignorance as best.
“These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” (1 Timothy 6:2b-5)
A moral person should take responsibility for the stories they spread. An untrue claim can do real harm. Gossip, slander and evil surmises may help line the pockets of those trying to exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain. But these things do do not help the cause of truth. As people of faith and love we have no excuse to be casual with our sources. Agreement in principle is not a reason to trust a source or be negligent of due diligence.
“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:7-10)
Contrary to what some may think, being a person of faith does not automatically lead to better discernment. We must actual train ourselves to be godly and discerning. What this means practically is not just accepting internet stories as fact even if we like what they are saying. We have a moral responsibility to be critical thinkers who can see past our own potential prejudices, misconceptions or biases. It requires first being humble enough to admit what we want to think is true isn’t always true.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
If you do not know if a story is true or not, rather than risk promulgation of half-truth or lies, do not share it. There is plenty that is good or honorable that we can share without risking the credibility of ourselves or hurting that which we claim to love in the process.