I was checking out my Twitter feed the other day and I came upon a tweet from Richard Dawkins. He is one of my favorite writers and I’ve been following him for years. The tweet was a link to an article from the Independent entitled “More than 60,000 sign petition to stop doctor getting sacked for asking Muslim patient to remove veil.” He replied to his tweet with a link to the petition referenced in the article. Last I checked, the petition had nearly 125,000 signatures.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) May 26, 2019
Because these two tweets were from Richard Dawkins, I read the article. It is poorly written; it is not anything like fair and balanced, and it doesn’t include many checkable facts. That said, this is one of the first petitions (maybe the only petition) I’ve seen @RichardDawkins get behind. I was about to click through and sign it. Then, I caught myself. Wait. Is this true? It’s so incredibly inflammatory. Perhaps a bit of research is in order.
Is This Story Real?
In trying to determine whether or not this happened, I first went to snopes.com, a pretty good starting point for debunking online myths. The story wasn’t listed on the Snopes site. Is it not controversial? Did Snopes not get to it yet? The answer is unclear. (Time spent: 00:01:30)
If you search “royal stroke university hospital” on Google News, the hospital the accused doctor works at, you get three results, none of which are about this story. (Do you know how hard it is to search for anything on Google and get only get three results?) Searching for either the “General Medical Council” or “Keith Wolverson” returned just over 20,000 results. Many of the top hits come from UK-based outlets primarily focused on celebrity gossip (e.g., The Daily Mail) or conservative-leaning politics (e.g., Western Journal). (Time spent: 00:03:00)
The petition was created by “Rhaegwyn WelshDragon5517.” If you search for that handle, the top hit is the Twitter page belonging to “Rhaegwyn,” which no longer exists. Other hits include news stories about the petition, as well as links to TweetTunnel.com, with replies to a tweet from Rhaegwyn, with an overwhelming number coming from Twitter accounts without real names and with politically charged bios. Following that path was a downward spiral into online anonymity. (Time spent: 00:04:00)
After spending the better part of 10 minutes with this tweet and my associated research, I decided that I did not have enough factual information or corroborating online evidence about this incident to justify signing the petition. But I was confused.
Did Richard Dawkins Do His Own Research?
If you are unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins, he is an evolutionary biologist, and a computer scientist for whom I have the utmost respect. He has written several insightful books including The Selfish Gene (1976), his genes-eye view of evolution. In it, he coins the term “meme,” explains his concept of “selfishness shrouded in altruism,” and builds a case that will alter the way you think about what it means to be alive. The Selfish Gene is required reading. If you haven’t read it, put it on your summer reading list. You will be glad you did.
Dawkins, like many public figures on Twitter, has a disclaimer in his bio: “RTs don’t imply endorsement, nor exhaustive research of tweeter’s CV.” While humorously worded, the disclaimer is a weighty one in our post-truth world.
The Power of Editorial Endorsement Comes with Responsibility
To be a leader, you only need one follower. This is especially true on social media. We are all influencers; the only difference between us and the Kardashian sisters is the size of our respective social media communities. Size notwithstanding, the currency of all media is trust. You trust the people and organizations you follow to meet your expectations: sports scores, breaking news, business news, the weather forecast, politics, entertainment, etc.
Although most name-brand news organizations have a particular political persuasion, most of them tend to publish information they believe to be truthful, and they do their best to fact check their work. This is nowhere near true for the vast majority of publicly available content. But most mainstream media brands are loud and proud about who they are and where they sit on the political spectrum.
Do you hold the public figures and celebrities you follow to the same standard? Do you assume that they have done their best to fact check the information they publish?
Dawkins’s disclaimer gets him off the hook for this faux pas. But for me, it was a wake-up call. In practice, I don’t have time for the truth – and neither does anyone else. There is no way to spend upwards of 10 minutes researching the veracity of every tweet or FB post you read. Who would even want to? The lesson is clear. This is an intractable problem. Disinformation is the seminal tool by which Wikiality (where, regardless of the facts, the best narrative wins) will replace reality in the next election cycle, and at a mass level, it cannot be controlled. But we can all critically think about what we read. As President Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify.”
Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.