Facebook Isn’t the Problem; It’s Our Lack of Critical Thinking

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

This week, in part due to the testimony of a whistleblower who once worked for Facebook, everybody is piling on that and other social media sites. Suddenly, they are the culprit behind misinformation and the subsequent harm to society.

Even Republicans and Democrats — who can’t seem to agree that we need investment in climate change — have come together to get behind this movement. “They’re evil! Let’s regulate them!”

Censorship is never a good idea; it rarely works.

Facebook could easily solve the problem by having a disclaimer appear onscreen every time you log onto the site that says something like, “Please be aware that all content is published by individual subscribers and may be misleading or inaccurate. Please do your own fact-checking.” This puts the onus on the individual, where it should be.

What I would say is that the advancement of social media has gone hand in hand with the decline in learning and, more specifically, critical thinking skills. It has made us quick to the draw whenever we read something (if we even read beyond the headline), and it has made us lazy about following up with questions or research on the content we see.

The other day, I was talking with my college students about how to find good sources. I mentioned the advantage of peer-reviewed journals (such as The New England Journal of Medicine, for example). Although it takes time for the experts in the field to agree on the research and publish their results (a disadvantage is a lag to get the information — not like a daily newspaper), you can safely assume that what they come up with is going to be good, reliable research. They are experts in their field.

A student asked, “But isn’t that biased?” She meant that if they are, say, experts in virology, they would be biased against any other experts and toward their own field of knowledge.

I pointed out that surely when the group got together, there would be some difference of opinion and maybe some argument, but as professionals, they would test their data and eventually come to an agreement on important points. They won’t agree on every single thing, but more expert heads are better than one.

Why would you want to bring someone with a Ph.D. in literature into the discussion? Why would you want to bring an opera singer into the discussion? Why would you bring a Pulitzer Prize-winning economist into the discussion?

All are experts in their field, but I don’t want their opinions on virology.

And this goes to any field. Journalists are coming under fire these days, so much so that our previous President went so far as to call the press “the enemy of the people.” But can’t we tell a good journalist from a bad one?

If I want unbiased news, I might go to ABC’s David Muir, who is highly regarded and has won several awards. Good journalists, print or on-air, are trained to be as unbiased as possible.

It also makes sense that the top graduates of the best journalism schools in the country are going to gravitate toward media like The New York Times. Wouldn’t that publication generally have experts in the field of journalism? So then, more trustworthy in my mind.

If I want news commentary (like the nightly cable shows, which are probably more popular than straight news shows these days), which intentionally has some bias, I will trust someone like Rachel Maddow, who has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in public relations from Oxford University. That education means something. It means that she was smart to begin with to get into the schools, but the education she got there trained her in critical thinking. She knows how to dig deep into an issue and find and uncover the crux of the truth.

Sean Hannity, though he can be commended for working his way up the journalism ladder and making quite a name and fortune for himself, never graduated from college. There are plenty of fine people who never finished college, but I don’t know if I would favor his critical thinking skills on political matters above others with better training. He is good at building his brand, but that’s a different skill set.

If I want to discuss acting technique, I’ll go to Denzel Washington over Zac Efron. I’m sure Zac would agree.

If I want an expert on the economy, I’ll go to Josh Bivens.

If I want an expert on history American history, I’ll find Doris Kearns Goodwin.

If I want an expert in singing, I’ll reach out to Audra McDonald.

If I want an expert in filmmaking, get me Spielberg.

You get the picture.

We all have opinions, and that’s fine. But try to back it up with something reliable. Show me you’ve read something.

I introduce my students to the CRAP test, created by librarians — experts in the field of research. Here it is:

C — What is the Currency? How recently was the article published? It’s a start to see how up-to-date the information is. Technology changes. Scholarship changes over the decades. Culture changes. I don’t want to read someone’s expertise on sexual harassment in 1983, other than for historical context.

R — How Reliable is the source? What kind of information is in it? Are they opinions? Does it seem balanced? (A loaded question these days, I know.) Does the article list references for its sources? (Or, if on video, does the person cite reputable sources?)

A — Authority. Who is the author and what are their credentials? Is the publisher or sponsor reputable? I will take an established journal like The Atlantic over some guy sitting in his garage blogging about politics. If you look up the author, where were they educated, or what relevant experience do they have?

P — POV/Purpose. Is the point of view biased? Is the author or website or organization trying to sell you something?

And what about me, you may ask, and rightfully so. I’m what is known as a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things and have a reasonable amount of expertise on a few things.

I was an English major and have a master’s degree in writing. I have many years of editing experience. I have logged many years as a singer and recording artist. I am a practiced public speaker. I have authored a novel and a memoir. I am a certified health and life coach. I was a bartender for twelve years. I have been a journalist, mainly in the entertainment field. I have served on a few boards for progressive organizations.

The most important thing an education in humanities has given me is curiosity and enjoyment for learning and reading. I’ve come to love history and politics, even though I have no noticeable experience in either discipline. I was trained to read with a critical eye. I can easily spot bullshit in a magazine and often that translates to being able to see bullshit when it’s walking toward me as well.

You don’t need a college degree in order to question sources. But you need to have a deep curiosity and a willingness to search for the truth, or at least as close as you can get to it.

I don’t think we can legislate information. Who would be the judges, and would they change with each incoming Administration? When does content cross a line? What kind of information are we looking at?

I do believe a private organization can set standards to whatever they see fit, but the government has more and better things to do than to spend time monitoring content.

But we as individuals have agency. We can do our due diligence. As the saying goes, with freedom comes responsibility. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Use that wonderful mind, and be ready to call out bullshit whenever you see it.

Which will be often, unfortunately.