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Too Bad to be True: A Social Media Cautionary Tale

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A lot of people’s New Year’s resolutions involve social media. Things like:

  • “I’m going to get off Twitter.”
  • “I’m going to delete my Facebook.”
  • “I’m going to set limits on my social media time.”
  • “I’m going to stay on all my social media outlets but I promise to stop being a horrific ragemonster all the time. Well, most of the time. OK, some of the time.”

I, too, have made my fair share of plans to better manage my online time — sometimes at New Year’s, sometimes not; some successful, some not. But in the wee hours of this morning, unable to get back to sleep and finished the book I’d been reading, I was scrolling through Twitter when the tweet below came up in my timeline and provided me with a perfect example of a resolution we should all make.

Now I’m going to guess that a lot of people who are liberal (like me) and ardently pro-vaccination (like me) had a similar reaction to mine at that tweet. Tragic for any young woman to die at 26, how sad for her family, but what a rich and deserved irony in an anti-vax crusader dying of diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines. It’s like that gun rights activist who got shot by her own pre-schooler — how can you avoid a smug smirk at someone so clearly bitten on the ass by their own misguided beliefs?

What stopped me from immediately liking, retweeting, or commenting, was simple human decency: a young woman in her 20s is dead; there were people who loved her; let’s pause a moment before pointing out the rich irony of her death. And it was that moment of decency, of pause, that gave me time to think, “This seems almost too perfectly ironic.” And while life sometimes is too perfectly ironic (see above story about gun-rights activist), I thought I’d take a moment to click the linked news story and see just how on-the-nose the late Payton’s comments about vaccines were, and whether the illnesses she died of were definitely vaccine-preventable. So I clicked.

And — surprise — the linked article makes no mention of Payton’s anti-vaccine stance. Odd, I thought, and did a bit more digging. What I found was that while Bre Payton was certainly a conservative writer and espoused a number of positions that liberals like me would find objectionable, the attempt to categorize her as an anti-vaxxer was based entirely on a single tweet from 7 years ago (when she was 19) that, out of context, could be read either as opposing vaccines or making fun of anti-vaxxers. Not a single other shred of evidence could I find to suggest that she had ever “campaigned against vaccines” or made public statements one way or the other about vaccines (unless someone’s since uncovered evidence of this).

Nor was there any evidence whether she had or had not gotten a flu shot this year, or whether the strain of flu that killed her could have been prevented by this year’s flu shot. And, in fact, the person on twitter (not the one I saw) who originally portrayed her as an anti-vaxxer took down his tweet and apologized after the error was pointed out to him.

Of course, by the time you’ve taken down your tweet and apologized, it’s like apologizing for that match you dropped in the drought-stricken forest. It’s too late, buddy. Your words are out there, and people are retweeting and sharing and commenting like there’s no tomorrow.

It’s interesting, a few hours later, to see what’s happening on Twitter in response to the death of this young woman I’d never heard of until she was dead. Along with the expected condolences and tributes that follow the death of any public figure, there are the also-expected bizarre right-wing conspiracy theorists claiming she was murdered for reporting on the Mueller inquiry, or the anti-vaxxers claiming she was killed by a non-consensual flu shot.

But there are still plenty of my fellow lefties out there perpetrating the belief that she was a vocal anti-vaxxer felled by a vaccine-preventable disease, or pivoting to suggest that because she vocally opposed universal health care (that part is true) she somehow got what she was coming to her. (Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but even up here in Canada with our generally quite good public health care, people do still die sometimes. We have not conquered mortality).

One bottom-feeding scumbag has even made a parody account using her picture and a version of her name, to comment on her own death.

Aaaannnd it’s right about now that people say, “Yeah, I think my New Year’s resolution is to quit Twitter.”

I’m not quitting Twitter. Yes, it contains a sinkhole of the worst of human behavior, but it also contains Blair Braverman’s sled dogs, and I’m all there for the pups and the jokes and the cleverness.

But I’m not there for the bottom-feeding pile-ons of human tragedy, especially the ones that happen when we share or comment without taking even a moment to think and investigate. It took me five minutes, all told, to dig into the Bre Payton story and see that the original tweet was inaccurate, which prevented me from sharing hate and misinformation. It was time well spent.

We all need to do this more, but I’m speaking particularly to my fellow lefties here. We’re so quick to notice when those on the opposite side of the political fence make this kind of error on social media — whether it’s blowing a non-story into a story to foment fake outrage, or capitalizing on a genuine tragedy to demonize an innocent group of people. But are we vigilant about it on our own side? When I see a story that just seems so believable, so appropriate, so harmonious with the way I want to think the world works — do I share it without taking the time to think?

Years before Twitter or any other part of the internet was invented, as a child in Sabbath School, I was taught three rules that you’re probably familiar with too — three things to ask myself before sharing a piece of gossip or making a comment. They seem more true than ever in the age of social media.

  • Is it kind? There is nothing kind about immediately using someone else’s tragedy to score your own points. Whether you agree with a person’s politics or not, an untimely death is a tragedy for those who loved that person and not a time to mock them for what they said or did in life.
  • Is it true? Actually click on the link you’re sharing and read what it says. Check a few other sources. If it’s not true, don’t be a part of spreading misinformation.
  • Is it necessary? I absolutely believe it’s necessary to spread the word that vaccines are safe and essential for public health — but sharing an unkind, untrue story is not the way to accomplish that.

I learned a lot in about five minutes this morning — about Bre Payton, about the murky depths of Twitter, and about my own prejudices and assumptions. I’m going to work hard to apply those three rules to my own social media use this year. I invite you to do the same.


One thought on “Too Bad to be True: A Social Media Cautionary Tale

  1. Very well said Trudy!

    Wayne Malcolm Schafer. QC

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