It started with a Facebook post from July 26. I had just undergone minor surgery on my hand to correct a case of trigger finger.
It was my second such surgery in a year. (The previous round had involved my left hand; this time it was my right.) In fact, the procedure now seemed entirely routine to the point where there were no recovery-room selfies. So I used the post-surgery selfie from the previous year as a kind of illustrative photo.
Now, let me tell you that if you want attention on Facebook, post something that shows you’ve been suffering (not so much that it will frighten people, but a little is fine). It will bring out the hordes who never react to or comment on your latest political posting or newspaper column; they’ll fall all over themselves wondering what happened and how you feel, wishing you a speedy recovery and the like.
It’s like posting something about a cute puppy, just with lots of warm and comforting sympathy. And yes, it’s nice.
My first mistake was to use the photo from the previous year, when it had been my left hand that was bandaged.
My right hand would now be out of order, yet I got all sorts of good wishes for a healthy left hand, comments about the fact that I’d now be unable to write (I’m a lefty) and so on, to the point where I reiterated again and again that it was my right hand, thank you.
But it didn’t help. No matter how many times I pointed out the discrepancy, another five people would weigh in to wish me a full recovery for an already healthy hand.
Fast-forward to an evening earlier this week, a full five months after the surgery, when in retrospect, the confusion caused by the illustrative photo was chump change. For whatever reason, my friend Holly (some people seem to have a lot of time on their hands) suddenly came across the post and wrote: “How’d I miss this?” Before I could muster a minute or two to answer, the inquiries and good wishes began flowing in.
My responses went out full speed: “Last July. I'm fine.” “Tnx, but last July!!! I’m terrif!!!” And finally: “I'M FINE!!!!! THIS IS OLD!!!!! HOLLY… THIS IS THE END FOR YOU!!!!!” And Holly, a veteran and skilled Facebook operative with a gazillion FB friends, coolly replied: “LOL... I've brought it back to life. Milk it. Ask for cash gifts.”
Before things calmed down, Harry, a journalism colleague from the old days, wandered in with this: “What happened? First of all, a ‘refuah shlemah’ to you. Second of all, it's a helluva way to get sympathy from your friends. Get well and get out of the hospital soon….”
Then it hit me: “Ask for cash gifts” and “A helluva way to get sympathy.” And the realization: This was just like fake news. In fact, it was fake news.
WHILE MOST cases of fake news start with malice aforethought, this started with a misunderstanding, yet it rolled on and grew and snowballed and multiplied to the point where it no longer helped to protest that it was just a big mix-up and I was really, truly fine.
People didn’t bother to check the veracity of the story, say, by looking at the date of the original posting. And some seemed to ignore my frantic protestations, as if there were some innate desire to believe I had undergone surgery if only for the simple sake of believing it, or perhaps because wishing others well makes us feel better about ourselves.
But ditch the psychology: Despite all the efforts to end it, this small example of fake news took on a life of its own, even if only for a couple of hours.
It made it easy to understand why fake news involving world-changing developments and deep emotions and prejudices goes on and on to the point where many of us no longer know what’s fake and what’s real – and this is about things we really need to be informed about.
The chief culprit? With all due respect, it’s probably the dumbing down of our societies.
HOW MANY people say “He told my wife and I”? That’s because for at least a generation, probably two, they stopped emphasizing English in American education. I’m not talking about knowing the difference between present perfect and pluperfect; I’m talking about the difference between there, their and they’re, and who’s and whose.
How many people know long division? Pocket calculators put an end to that, and calculator apps on our smartphones are keeping it that way.
When you need that app for simple addition or subtraction, you know you’re in trouble – try carrying over a few digits while a lightning-fast rip-off artist in some foreign street does a favor for you and calculates the exchange rate when you buy knickknacks for friends and relatives and all you have is dollars or euros.
Worse yet, how many people – college students, even – can tell you the capital of Colombia or Bangladesh or Nepal or even Canada? How many know the names of the continents these countries are on? How many know who is the leader of South Africa or Australia or Venezuela or even the United Kingdom? How many know what unicameral or bicameral means, or how proportional representation differs from representation by district? Surveys show that our basic knowledge of things just a few feet beyond our nose is frighteningly scant. What’s more, we now prefer to get our news from sources that reinforce our beliefs, probably more out of a sense of laziness and a desire for comfort than any ingrained, blazing partisanship.
Is it any wonder that people can – and do – play us for stooges?