The internet is a bubbling crockpot of paparazzi pictures, Twitter activism, leaked emails, and endless additional bites of information. No matter how much time you spend online, it’s impossible to consume everything. It’s also a place where nobody knows you’re a dog, where you can’t always tell the difference between political satire and destructive, hurtful racism, and where people threaten to kill someone they don’t even know over a single photograph—even one that was intended to be a harmless joke.
Tumblr is something of a sacred space for many young people—it’s where we get our political news, debate friends about social issues, and keep track of information that isn’t widely covered by the mainstream media. I hear people say things like “I’ve learned more on Tumblr than I have in four years of high school/college” all the time. I’ve even said this, especially in reference to my feminism, which has been significantly shaped by the online communities and personal blogs I’ve frequented. I rarely hear anyone my age making similar testimonies about newspapers, news magazines, or TV news.
But one thing those more-“official” outlets has over most blogs/Tumblrs/Twitters/etc. is that they are way more likely to have done at least a cursory checking of the facts in any of their stories. Someone—the reporter, an editor, or (rarely these days) a professional fact-checker—is responsible for getting things right, and their job is on the line if they keep printing things that aren’t factually true. Nothing happens to someone who tweets a lie.
This isn’t to say that Tumblr can’t be a super-effective tool for conversation, but it’s important to keep in mind that words flow freely within this bubble, and not everyone has the same standards when it comes to being factual. One example: In 2012, a college student named Kim Stafford was going to a Boston Tea Party–themed frat party, but she didn’t have a costume. She quickly scribbled a sign parodying the ideas of the modern-day Tea Party, which, as you probably know, is a socially conservative American political group. Her sign read a village in kenia is missing there idiot, a spoof on “birthers,” or people who actually believe President Obama was born in Africa. She hung the sign around her neck and went to the party, but not before a friend posted a picture of her costume on Tumblr.
The picture was reblogged over and over. Removed from its original context, Stafford’s joke quickly became a messed-up meme. People thought it was a picture of an actual Tea Party member, not a satirical costume. Many took offense to the sign; some of these people went so far as to post death threats against Stafford on Tumblr and Facebook. Despite her best efforts, Stafford couldn’t get the picture offline; as I’ve written before, the internet never forgets.
Sometimes debunking these internet-based untruths can be hilarious, as evidenced by this list of mangled misquotes attributed to people like Marilyn Monroe (made by our very own Gabby). Usually, though, these fake-o memes just get a huge mass of people completely enraged, and SO QUICKLY, about something that isn’t even real, because they didn’t stop to examine what they’re raging against, nor how they’re doing it. Even if Stafford really did think President Obama was born in Kenya, would she have deserved the violent (and, predictably, often sexist) vitriol that was heaved at her on Tumblr and Facebook? Pretty sure the answer is NO.
Posting something on social media (especially on Tumblr, thanks to the aforementioned reblog function) is a surefire way for the information you post to lose its intentional meaning fast. You post a picture, someone reblogs it, someone else reblogs that post, tags that might have helped contextualize the post are removed, source information is deleted, and suddenly that selfie you posted is spread across the internet, recontextualized in a way that makes you deeply uncomfortable. Because when something—a photo, a quote, a snippet—catches on online, no one person is in control of how it will be presented. It can be made to mean anything anyone wants it to mean. And the more your work is reblogged, retweeted, and shared, the less chance it has at preserving its original meaning and intention.
Take the time the writer Alicia Lutes posted a screencap of an OkCupid exchange in which someone berated her for being fat. She sent back a sarcastic comeback—which was included in her post—but when the image was reblogged to a girl’s thinspo Tumblr without Lutes’s commentary, the post was turned into a tool to encourage thinness—pretty much the opposite of what Lutes originally intended.
I’m not just pointing fingers at personal blogs and sosh-media accounts, though—tons of big, supposedly reputable websites are super guilty of baiting you into clicking some insane headline just to get a rise (and additional traffic, which = $$) out of you. As both a reader of and writer on the internet, I learned a long time ago that you can’t engage with trolls—people who start fights online specifically to get you mad. And that rule also applies to the websites that troll their own readers by creating posts that are obviously written just to generate clicks and angry comments.
There have been many times in the past when I’ve jumped to hasty conclusions after reading something online—sometimes it’s something small and personal, like misreading someone’s sarcastic comment as an insult, and sometimes it’s bigger, like when I angrily and impulsively typed out a response to the Kony 2012 video, which ostensibly raised awareness a violent warlord in Uganda. Only after chiming in did I actually do a few minutes of real research, which showed me that there were many problems with the movement, most troubling of which was that the organization behind it, Invisible Children, was using very little of the money people donated after watching the video on direct action. A bunch of people were duped, all because of a sensationalist video designed to be reblogged as many times as possible. (Insert whoopie-cushion noise here.)
So now, before getting worked up about something, I take a minute to weigh the value of what it is I’m angry about: Is reading that think-piece about men preferring women who don’t wear makeup or the article on dudes loving hot girls at metal shows really going to make me more informed about something I already knew I hated, or is it just designed to make me mad?
The widespread belief is that we’re all more informed because of the internet, and that’s true. But we’re also being fed a lot more crap on the regular, which means we need to rethink what we respond to and how we respond. This is especially important because it’s become easier than ever to widely broadcast your opinion online, even if it’s based on total lies or misconstrued information. As the great philosopher Marilyn Chanel Hepburn once said, “Don’t believe everything that you read.”
At the end of the day, you can’t control how the internet at large will decide to reinvent anything you put online. It might use your work in totally amazing and subversive ways, like when citizens reappropriated a police-created hashtag on Twitter to expose and protest police brutality. Or it might misrepresent you and your intentions so radically that you become the a target of harassment, like it did with Kim Stafford and Alicia Lutes. Every single item in every one of your feeds is designed to grab your attention—but on many sites, that’s where their job ends. It’s your job in such cases to do your own research. Before you just REACT in a raging fury, look into the background of whatever you’re reading. Ask yourself: Where did this come from? Who wrote/made it? What’s their background? Is there anything about this story in the sources you trust most to get things right? (And don’t just rely on one trusted source—everyone is capable of getting things wrong sometimes!)
Twitter firestorms can be useful, educational, and empowering, especially when they’re responding to true injustice. Let’s just all make sure we’re ranting about something worth our time before we start them. ♦