When a Viral Post Gets it Wrong

The Internet has exponentially increased the amount of information available while enabling ignorance and rash judgment. San Francisco’s creation of open-air toilets prompts a reexamination about information pushed to us on social networks and Internet culture broadly.

Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion, observes that the Internet “has eclipsed our reliance on logic critical thinking and common sense.” We have a cultural obligation to reflect on our Internet behavior to combat bias to promote critical thinking.

The Facebook post and article below offer contrasting information. At first glance, which one do you think is true?

Source: My Facebook Feed
Source: Los Angeles Times

I became skeptical when a friend alerted me that San Francisco legalized public urination. With a quick Google search seeking a credible source, I discovered that the Facebook post was pure click-bait and acutely falsified. But there’s a problem — a distorted headline like “San Francisco Legalizes Public Urination” would never appear in a publication with editors and gatekeepers.

The American Society of News Editors proclaims editors “are responsible for “fostering the public discourse essential to democracy; helping editors maintain the highest standards of quality, improve their craft and better serve their communities.”

Historically, consumers relied on legacy news organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today to filter news based on timeliness, relevance and accuracy. With information moving online, there are more voices; news distribution is increasingly fragmented. Gatekeepers don’t exist on the internet. Blatantly biased, or false information exists adjacent to highly researched, long-form content. In today’s internet age, consumers discern fact from fiction themselves.

Anybody on the Internet can share an article on social media and watch it go viral. Everybody spreads news and opinion, but fact checking is optional.

I’m all for giving everybody a voice through websites like Reddit, Twitter and Medium. The openness of the Internet is its biggest strength and a colossal leap forward for society. For the first time in world history, people can instantly spread ideas between continents in the snap of a finger. If you have a smartphone and an internet connection, you have a voice. Everybody can refute comments made on traditional media outlets or elsewhere on the Internet. Everybody can publicly share their story.

But human advancement almost always comes at a cost. When everybody can effortlessly publish a blog post or tweet with the click of a button, there is nobody to check the facts. Bias reigns king in the land of subjective facts. On the Internet, everybody can actively create and spread content instead of passively consuming it. We are our own gatekeepers.

I have learned to never bet against the trends. Rather, we should work with them to mold the future instead of blocking its progress. I profoundly believe that our world is stronger when everybody has a voice — when we’re all committed to spreading ideas and shaping the future. Social journalism is the future and I hope everybody can participate in it. We’re slowly advancing towards a democratized world impactfully enabled by the Internet.

On Medium, I am grateful for the plethora of people who progress global advancement with every word they write and every idea they spread. Websites like Medium and social networks like Facebook enable the best ideas to gain traction and spread to obscure corners of the world. Social networks are here to stay, for better and for worse.

But without gatekeepers, it is on readers to detect the bias, prejudice and “selective facts.” Bias has always been present in news reporting but the Internet makes it worse. Anybody can spread anything at any time.

Click-bait articles that reach consumers through Facebook give us reason to worry. San Francisco did not legalize public urination, but many people think it did. The new urinals are set up to curtail San Francisco’s public urination problem.

The average American Facebook user spends more than 40 minutes on Facebook per day. With more than 1.59 billion active users, it is safe to say that Facebook is where most of the world gets their news and information. It is where most people shape their perception of the world and evolve their opinions with every post.

In 2016, information has never been so ubiquitous and accessible.

So be careful as you mindlessly scroll your Facebook feed. Publishers are competing for your scare attention and incentivized to show little regard for the truth. Skeptics have it right — social networks are an echo chamber deliberately curated to fit your personality and interests. Turn on your bias detection meter because in a world without gatekeepers, false information is coming your way from left and right. Be weary of ignorance in pursuit of truth and always keep your bias detector running.


  1. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-open-air-urinal-san-francisco-20160128-story.html
  2. http://totalfratmove.com/san-francisco-legalizes-public-urination/
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/26/business/media/a-platform-and-blogging-tool-medium-charms-writers.html
  4. http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/may/13/internet-confirmation-bias
  6. http://umich.edu/~newsbias/medium.html
  7. http://asne.org/content.asp?pl=24&sl=32&contentid=32