Sunday, September 27, 2015

Internet hoaxes

My September 27, 2015 column.

Filipino Facebook users are the world’s most unintelligent people. This was the bold assertion made by an alleged study conducted by a Filipino graduate student from Harvard University last year. Highlights of the “study” found their way to various social networking sites recently. Among the supposed findings were the following: 80 percent of Filipino Facebook users click the like button on external links without even reading or opening the links first or being aware of what they are “liking;” most Filipino users share horrific images like accidents, killings, child abuse and other horrendous images that are not normally shared by people who understand the effects of these images; and Filipino Facebook users do not seem to understand the concept of human rights or etiquette. The “study” was backed by seemingly convincing data, citing statistics that appeared credible because they seemed empirically-based, such as total population of Filipinos and total number of Internet users, among others.
The results of the “study” created quite a stir. There were those who immediately questioned the methodology and the results, while there were those who seemed to agree with the findings, citing various anecdotal evidences that seem to support the findings. I came across an article about the study on the Facebook page of a friend of mine who happens to be among the country’s most respected clinical psychologists. It was discovered later on that the supposed study was actually a hoax; it was a complete work of fiction.
On hindsight, a closer reading of the so-called findings and the way these were presented showed telltale signs of shoddy analysis. Unfortunately, most of us have profound respect for data presented in a complex form as we tend to associate intelligence, scientific rigor, and even credibility with complexity; thus, it is quite easy to perpetuate hoaxes, particularly if these are packaged well. This brings me to an important question that has been bothering me for quite sometime now: What drives people to spend that much time and effort on making up hoaxes such as the aforementioned study?
The fact that the so-called study became viral and merited heated discussions seemed to validate the findings of the study. There are quite a number of Filipinos who tend to believe urban legends and hoaxes, and worse, are quick to share these without validating their provenance or veracity. I have personally called the attention of some friends in instances when they shared a meme or an article making certain claims that had already been debunked by experts. For example, there are quite a number of medical advice being shared and re-shared in social networking sites that are not supported by science; some of these are quite dangerous because they are not generalizable or applicable in all situations or conditions. 
However, it must be pointed out very strongly that this predilection is not unique to Filipinos —in fact, this seems to be a universal malady.
I would like to think that most are driven by noble intentions when they feel the compulsion to share with the rest of the world whatever information they deem important.
For example, I was aghast that many people immediately posted screen grabs of the street view of their residences when Google Maps made the facility available, in the process throwing security and privacy concerns to the wind. This also includes sharing of photos, information, or even data that should really remain private. 
Of course it would be desirable if people exercised a little vigilance—it is very often easy to check the veracity of certain urban legends as there are reliable Internet sites such as that make a compilation of these —but I guess it is difficult to argue with good intentions. 
A large part of the motivation has to do with social coordination as well. Social networking sites are convenient venues for social interaction. Gossip, rumors, jokes, urban myths and legends are the stuff that everyone can easily relate with or contribute to. In this context, analytical thinking or vigilance seem irrelevant.
All these, however, cannot be blanket justification for rash behavior in social networking sites that need to be reconsidered because, at the very least, they smack of immaturity.

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