Don't Get Duped by Political Hoaxes on Social Media this Election Year

Back away from the share button before somebody gets hurt.
Publish date:
February 11, 2016
politics, social media, hoaxes

You've probably heard the news: The State of Michigan just banned sodomy.

...or wait. Did they? Certainly enough people sent me links to stories about it, my Facebook wall exploded with outraged posts, and I suspect a few petitions popped up. In this bizarre political landscape, it doesn't seem completely far-fetched — after all, this is a country where legislators pass fetal personhood laws and people defend the right to refuse service to lesbian brides, while legislators consider "pastor protection bills" to defend innocent clergy from the (nonexistent) threat of state-mandated same-gender marriage ceremonies.

It turns out, though, that no, they did not, as even a cursory review of the facts of the matter reveals — in this case, Snopes has kindly donated to the cause. Here's what happened. A Republican lawmaker proposed amendments to the state's animal cruelty statutes to crack down on dogfighting, including ensuring that someone who is convicted of animal abuse cannot have a pet for at least five years. This sounds like good news to me, because dogfighting is terrible and animal abusers are bad people who should feel bad.

In this case, the animal cruelty statute also (reasonably) addresses bestiality, and thanks to the brilliant minds of days gone by, sodomy is included in the bestiality section, and has never been struck from the statutes by an act of legislature. It's really terrible that sodomy laws are still on the books in Michigan, but they're also still present in 11 other states.

And in all 12 states, they are completely unenforceable, thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court in Lawrence v Texas (2003) — yes, that's right, anti-sodomy laws were technically constitutional until then, although they likely wouldn't have withstood legal challenges. The case revolved around a pair of men who were charged under a sodomy statute because police caught them doing things that adults sometimes like to do, in the privacy of their own home. The Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were a violation of the 14th Amendment, protecting the rights of adults everywhere to do things that adults sometimes like to do in the privacy of their own homes.

Back to Michigan, where the legislature passed the revisions to the code that extended animal welfare protections, but did not remove the section of the code banning sodomy, and one of the cosponsors explained why: He was afraid that if they took on the task of excising homophobic language, the bill would flounder in the legislature and they wouldn't be able to force through legal protections for animals. And he knew that while the anti-sodomy law was repugnant, it was also unenforceable — so while there's great value in taking a stand on the subject and striking out an outdated, homophobic, disgusting law, it would have been a largely symbolic action, which is not to dismiss the value of symbols, but sometimes practicality has to take a front seat.

Passing animal welfare protections and then tackling the anti-sodomy laws would make more sense, as he knew that few lawmakers would be willing to vote against a law that basically says "don't do mean things to puppies," but they could decide to hold up the process of passing a law that says "don't do mean things to puppies, also please don't be homophobic," because this is a political reality in America.

And it's really awful. I wish that we lived in a country where it would be completely reasonable to clean up this debris from state codes without drama, but that's not the case. And in fact, a lot of states have unenforceable statutes on the books, or laws that simply aren't enforced because they're so ridiculous. Some states are actually working on making headway to remove offensive and outdated language — and it's happening on the federal level too, as for example when Congress moved to take "retarded" out of federal statutes, reflecting changing attitudes about disability. (It has been replaced with "intellectual disability.") Britain similarly undertook some legislative cleanup of its own to address things like laws forbidding suspicious salmon handling.

When legislatures have been passing laws for centuries, a lot of gunk tends to build up. And a lot of it is very, very ugly. Hopefully Michigan along with its compatriots will move to remove these unenforceable statutes, so that Snopes doesn't have to issue rolling updates every time something like this happens. But the fact that it does — and the fact that Snopes exists at all — is a testimony to a huge problem on the Internet that's going to loom especially large during the upcoming election season: Gullibility.

Social media really facilitates the quick share — glance at a headline, roar with outrage or fistbump with agreement, like, share, or retweet, move on to the next item. The problem is that many of these shares perpetuate things that are actually untrue, sometimes even damagingly so, and once a story starts to go viral, it can rapidly spin out of control. Whether it's someone falsely accused of being the Boston Bomber or a totally inaccurate story about the Michigan legislature, it becomes gospel until it can be untangled, and sometimes it never is.

Before hitting that share button, it pays to take a closer look — because you might unwittingly spread something harmful and/or false, or you might even be circulating something that isn't what you think it is. Headlines don't always reflect what's in the text, or provide information about the source of a piece, so you really do need to take the time to click through and read, and to do some critical thinking. What's the source of the information? Is it independently repeated anywhere else, or do references form a loop back to a single source, which is always a red flag that websites are feeding from a single trough in the hopes of capturing mileage from a viral story?

Often, a quick Googling will answer a question, as will a scroll to the bottom of the page. A friend recently shared a story about an ex-NCAA wrestler who killed a mountain lion with his bare hands, something that instantly made me skeptical. I searched for the story, and instantly discovered it was a hoax — something the story was later updated to reflect.

If something sounds too good, too ridiculous, or too obvious to be true, it might well be. We all know that Mark Zuckerberg isn't going to give us $1,000 for sharing this status, but many of us aren't as good at spotting other hoaxes, especially coming from sources that artfully mask themselves to give themselves a legitimate look and feel. This is perhaps particularly true in an era when The Onion often seems like a more legitimate and believable source of news than the actual news. I'm looking at you, man who threw a live alligator into the window of a Wendy's drive-through.

Worse yet, people believe something the more they see it, something I saw firsthand with the Michigan story. I saw it once, then twice, then everywhere, and though I repeatedly posted links refuting it, people ignored them. Being saturated in the story convinced them that it had to be true, or they shifted the story in their minds to accommodate new information about it — saying, for example, that by not actively striking down the outdated law, the state had effectively "passed it by default." This is not, in fact, how lawmaking works.

Election years tend to bring out the hoaxes, rumormongering, and lies in force, because everyone has an angle and an agenda to support, whether it's a political candidate, a proposition or ballot question, a local school board race, or something else entirely. California, for example, is battling over the possibility of banning the death penalty (it looks like two propositions will be on the ballot, one banning it, another affirming the present death penalty statutes, so California voters, watch out and make sure you know what you're voting for — or against). Anti and pro-death penalty advocates will both be circulating information in force to support their positions, and some of it — on both sides, and I say this honestly as someone who is rabidly anti- — is going to be false. Lies of omission, commission, and outright misstatement are going to be the order of the day as people smear candidates and social campaigns.

And it's easy to get lured into spreading this information via confirmation bias. I'm anti-death penalty, so of course I'm going to share stories that support my position without giving it much thought (where was that study performed? when? what was the sample size? where did the researchers get their funding? has it been criticized by other experts in the field?), and when I encounter information that contradicts with my opinion, I'll try to minimize it or explain it away. As we barrel towards Super Tuesday, we're really going to see this with political candidates, since both nominations are still wide open, and supporters of the major players in the field will be out in force, whether it's smearing Cruz, elevating Clinton, or worshiping Trump.

You're going to encounter a barrage of information and "share if you agree" captions in the coming weeks... but before you do, make sure that what you're sharing isn't fake, and that you really do agree with it.

Photo: Tim Evanson, Creative Commons