Social media false comparisons distort social commentary

“How do you want to pay for that?” “Do you prefer the red or the blue suit?” It’s an age-old sales trick that remains very much in use today. Change the dialogue from “do you want to buy this product” to “how do you want to pay for your purchase” or “which of these products are you going to buy?” Not buying is never put on offer. Such mental slights of word have their uses in overcoming the buyer’s inertia, but when such tactics are used to create false comparisons they can become a cover for a wide range of negative human expression.

Racism, sexism, hate and bullying can all raise their head within a meme that might at first glance be viewed as legitimate expressions of preference—providing cover for people to express opinions or thoughts that might otherwise be unacceptable.

Open any Facebook page and the images will immediately leap off the screen. A sympathetic image, perhaps of a decorated war veteran sitting homeless on the streets begging from passersby or a ramshackle shanty in a Northern First Nations community without clean water or proper insulation, and the value balance question is posed: should this veteran have a home before some welfare recipient, should we be providing proper shelter to our First Nations communities before a refugee?

The questions suggest that more worthy recipients of our social weal exist than those who are currently receiving that benefice. The question provides a false value balance and the image is always either a fabrication or exaggeration of the social balance being proffered. In reality those questions act as a cover to elicit and legitimize racist or social prejudices, acting to reinforce those tendencies by providing a false legitimacy.

Of course homeless veterans should be housed. Of course Northern First Nations communities should have access to clean water and safe shelter. There is no question in any rational mind that these are important social goals for a society as wealthy and rich in resources as Canada.

But it isn’t an either/or situation. The memes in question attempt to lay out a social value discourse by accessing prejudice, racism and worse and encourage people to share them based on the legitimacy of the proffered negative image.

There is no suggestion that both are laudable objectives. The underlying suggestion is that the second option should not be happening. Period. Because the first goal or objective is laudable and touches an emotionally charged core value, the other image is devalued and refuted through the manipulation of deep seated prejudice and preconceptions.

In the point and shoot, see and click world of the Internet, snap decisions are made with little consideration and the information that those decisions are being based on is more often than not based on falsehoods, exaggerations and misrepresentation.

Very few social media users bother to fact check the statements or images that are being presented to them. An image of a rough looking group of male refugees (read black people) announces that 12 recent refugees raped a 10-year-old girl in Nova Scotia (New Brunswick, Newfoundland or British Columbia will do) and asks the viewer to share the image so that others will be forewarned of the dangers of allowing those fleeing war and genocide into our country—and countless users will forward or share the image without considering that such an incident would be national and international news in every media outlet in the nation.

A quick check of Snopes would usually disavow the tale, but not always, as the sheer volume of specious content is actually beginning to overwhelm that organization’s resources enabling it to call foul on misinformation. But if the outrageous claim isn’t on the six o’clock news or the front pages of the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star or cbc.ca, then the chances that it actually happened is exactly nil. Plainly put, such news sells papers and no newspaper today can afford to be part of any conspiracy to cover up a big story no matter what the rightwing/leftwing illuminati dictate.

We all have darker prejudices hidden in our psyche, and those prejudices make it less likely that we will question images or claims that fit our worldview—witness the outrageous lies that can pass unchallenged by partisan political supporters, yes we mean him—but we must make a greater effort than our predecessors to challenge and shine a light on those images or claims, even if doing so means we must challenge our most deeply held values. Because it is those very noble values that the unscrupulous will use to manipulate our actions and drag us all down a darker path.

Think before you click.