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Ninety per-cent of Facebook and Twitter causes are based on false information, bigotry or both.

From scare stories about preservatives in food, to stories of dogs being hooked alive and used as shark bait, to stories about how people who don’t look like us eat something we don’t like eating and it’s disgusting and they are horrible and it should be stopped, almost every “Please pass this on, this must be stopped” story turns out to be based on false or misleading information, or cultural bigotry so blatant that it verges on racism.

These campaigns have real consequences. A campaign against the use of lean beef trimmings was bulldust from beginning to end. But the facts fell before a tidal wave of disgusting pictures of pink slime, and assertions the slime was loaded with ammonia and other deadly chemicals used as preservatives. None of the slimy pictures had anything to do with lean beef trimmings, and claims about high levels of preservatives were false.

It didn’t matter. The US beef industry responded with factual information, photos of the real product and descriptions of production methods. No one cared. Lean beef trimmings are high in protein, reduce the overall fat content of burgers and other meat products to which they are added, and in blind taste tests, were found by a majority of people to improve the tenderness of processed meats. It didn’t matter. The facts had no weight compared to the emotional fervour and manufactured horror of the pink slime campaign.

The end result was that factories were closed, businesses were forced into bankruptcy, hundreds of workers lost their jobs, and hundreds of families their incomes.

It may feel like you are doing a good thing when you click ‘Like’ to some circulating campaign against something, or pass it on to your friends. But when ninety per-cent of such campaigns are simply wrong, then clicking ‘Like’ or passing it on is not good, or even morally neutral. It is wrong.

At very least, we should check, every time, that what we are being told is true. Look for opinions opposed to those expressed in the message. Ask yourself “Is this reasonable?” “Is it really likely to be true?” Even if it is true, local governments may have the matter in hand, and demands for action in a Twitter campaign may be counter-productive or insulting.

Don’t pass on alarm stories without checking first, and if you have any doubts about the accuracy or fairness of a story, don’t pass it on at all. The truth matters. Don’t be a party to lies.

There is a point, though, at which the merely lazy, ignorant or bigoted nature of most Facebook campaigns tips over into actual evil. This point is the ongoing campaign against vaccination, and especially vaccination against childhood diseases such as measles and polio.

Over the next week I will write four articles explaining why this opposition is based on false, and in some cases deliberately false or misleading information. I will explain why the campaign is not just misguided but evil. And I will explain what you can do to help the truth be heard.

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