Fact Vs. Fiction And The Way We Process And Distribute Information

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credit: Justin DeMarco
credit: Justin DeMarco

It’s the first week of June and an April Fools’ hoax article is still making its way around Facebook and the Internet. One of my friends mentioned an article she saw on Facebook, “Couple Arrested For Selling ‘Golden Tickets To Heaven,’” at dinner. She read directly from the story, “Tito and Amanda Watts were arrested over the weekend for selling ‘golden tickets to heaven’ to hundreds of people. The couple, who sold the tickets on the street for $99.99 per ticket, told buyers the tickets were made from solid gold and each ticket reserved the buyer a spot in heaven – simply present the ticket at the pearly gates and you’re in.” The article included quotes from Tito and Amanda Watts’ police statements, as well as the kicker, “Police said they confiscated over $10,000 in cash, five crack pipes and a baby alligator.”

We checked the website that published the article (keep in mind, she clicked on the link from Facebook) and it was from Stuppid.com. We looked up the site and “STUPPID – Trending Stupid News” came up.

Can this really be a news story? We started thinking about it.

It wouldn’t be the first time a person tried to sell entry to heaven. I remembered sitting in my AP European History class watching one of my all-time favorite teachers, Doc van Wie, do an impression of Johann Tetzel pretending to sell indulgences in the early 1500s. Indulgences were certificates that pardoned a person’s sins and gave them access to heaven. It’s also what sparked the fire inside of Martin Luther that led him to post his Ninety-Five Theses, which were arguments against Catholic Church practices and the sale of indulgences.

Maybe this is simply a case of history repeating itself, I thought.

My buddy then talked about all of the wacky things that happen daily in Florida. He mentioned there’s even a Twitter account that only posts stranger than fiction news articles that start with or have “Florida Man” in the headline. The @_FloridaMan Twitter account has 294K followers. Tom Brokaw, the former anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004, has 91.2K followers.

We finished our meals and didn’t talk anymore about the “Golden Tickets To Heaven” story. Before bed, I scrolled through my Facebook News Feed and saw that one of my friends shared the “Golden Tickets To Heaven” article and tagged eight of his friends in a post that read, “I wish I could tag everyone ever. This basically is the height of the internet. It doesn’t get better than this. Congratulations Florida – you win yet again. Slow clap… very slow clap.” And his friends started commenting: “No words…” one said, “Pretty sure the catholic church tried this very thing,” another one added, and finally, “I assume this is real. I think it says more though about the people stupid enough to buy a ticket.”

Now I felt the need to verify the validity of this story. I did a quick search and an article in the Jacksonville Sun Times appeared. I clicked on the link and saw, “UPDATE: This story turned out to be an April Fool’s joke, and unfortunately we fell for it. The story, which several other websites also reported as fact, originated on March 31 with the website Stuppid.com, and the photos of the fictional ‘Tito and Amanda Watts’ came from this 2011 collection of bizarre mug shots. We apologize for publishing false information and regret this error.”

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Nor will it be the last. The Onion, a farcical newspaper and website, has made a name for itself by tricking people with satirical articles since 1988. And there have been many writers who have successfully pulled off satirical works long before that. This specific “Golden Tickets To Heaven” article was shared 237K times on Facebook. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if most people knew the story was a prank, but it’s alarming since 30% of Americans get their news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center.

Navigating fact versus fiction, especially on Facebook, is even more difficult today now that The New York Times, Buzzfeed, NBC News, and NatGeo started publishing some of their articles directly to the social media platform this May. Facebook started out as an exclusive way for only students with a college e-mail address to share their lives with one another, expanded to anyone and everyone signing up (even your mom and grandpa), and now the social media platform has entered the news publishing business. It started as a way to browse photos and write on a friend’s wall and now New York Times articles appear in your News Feed. Mix that with nonsense that other people post and good luck filtering what you should know and what you should disregard.

If the game of telephone taught us anything as kids, it’s that information can easily be misinterpreted when it’s shared from one person to another. The same goes for any stories or information that we find on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or anywhere else on the Internet. So, let this serve as a lesson to us all: before we post anything to our social media accounts or send out mass e-mails, let’s fact-check or at least do a little research about what we’re posting or sending before we do. It’ll save us the embarrassment of looking silly in front of our friends, family, and colleagues.

Or just do whatever makes you happy. Some people prefer the idea of believing in something ridiculous than actually finding out whether it’s true or not. When I posted a link in the Facebook comments section alerting my friend that the story was fake, he wrote, “DeMarco you’ve ruined EVERYTHING.”

For that, I’m sorry. I guess it would’ve been better for him if he lived in a world in which you can buy Golden Tickets to Heaven for $99.99. TC mark

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