The joke among journalists is that if a reporter's mother says, "I love you," that reporter will go out and find a second source to confirm. Having a bullshit detector is important for journalists, but sometimes it's exhausting. Other times exasperating.
Take my recent experience while scrolling through Facebook.
I see things that set off my BS detector nearly every time I visit Facebook. No, Bill Gates is not going to give away his fortune to the users of social media. Thankfully, William H. Macy is still alive. And gangs are not leaving infant car seats on the roadside to lure us to stop, where we are beaten and left for dead as part of a gang initiation.
The first thing I do when I see an unbelievable post is look at the source. Who is sharing this information? The next is go to Snopes and see if this is indeed another urban legend making the rounds.
I've seen plenty of gang initiation hoaxes float around the internet, so when I recently saw the car seat version, I was sure it was just the latest incarnation. But then I looked to see who shared it. Imagine my surprise on finding it was Pikes Peak Area Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit, whose mission is to "keep our region safer by offering cash rewards to citizens who remain anonymous and provide information on criminal activity in the 4th Judicial District," should be a credible source of information. But here they were, sharing what seemed like an urban legend.
For just a second, I thought, "Wow, could this be true?" And off to Snopes I went.
If you're not familiar with Snopes, you should bookmark the page now. The website was started in 1994 and is a solid fact-checking source, which uses a system to rate the validity of these urban legends and widely shared "facts."
It was here I learned that the car seat gang initiation tale — which isn't true — dates back to 2009. These urban legends are a bit like herpes — they might sit dormant, but they're always there lurking, ready to flare up again. The same day I saw the post from Crime Stoppers, I saw another Facebook friend share it.
As I do when I see bad information being shared, I commented on these posts to let them know it was a hoax.
I don't know what I expected in response, but when Crime Stoppers replied, I was shocked. "Great research Laura! Thanks for clarifying," they started. "We posted not for real or fake but because stories like these help keep people on their toes and staying aware. That is one of our main hopes for safety!"
In a time when relevant news sources are accused of being "fake news," it's maddening to see false information is being knowingly disseminated.
I reached out to Crime Stoppers via their Facebook page. Whoever runs the page said they would answer my questions via Messenger. Not ideal, but understanding it's a volunteer organization run by a board, I sent the questions. I wanted to know who runs their Facebook page, what the decision-making process is before posting or sharing items and, most importantly, if something is known to be a hoax, why would they leave it there?
Their reply, "We have no more comments on this matter." (A week later, as I prepared to submit this column, the June 20 post was still up.)
I next reached out to Colorado Springs Police spokesperson Lt. Howard Black. His first reaction was to ask me if maybe the post was a hoax (as though their account had been hacked). Once I explained, and assured him it was a deliberate post, he said he wouldn't talk about a partner agency. However, he wanted to check with Crime Stoppers about the post — and their reply.
Black did share his department's approach to social media. "You won't see us liking or sharing information unless it comes from other law enforcement organizations," he said. While they often see things that could be valuable information, he said they will always verify the authenticity before posting or reposting.
"It's important that we're responsible," he said.
If there's a bottom line here, it's this: When claims of "fake news" are thrown about like beads at a Mardi Gras parade, it's on all of us — especially organizations we need to trust — to take a few seconds before sharing that post on social media to verify it. If that's too much work for you, then just keep it to yourself. William H. Macy would probably appreciate it.