It is hardly news that factually incorrect or misleading posts are commonplace on social media. But it continues to infuriate that people who should know better accept questionable posts uncritically.
Three recent examples.
In late spring, a video was posted on Facebook in which an unidentified woman claimed in an anti-racist rant that Ben Wattenberg, adviser to three presidents and moderator of the PBS series “Think Tank,” said in his 1987 book, “The Birth Dearth,” that “the main problem confronting the United States today is that there aren’t enough white babies being born in this country.”
According to the woman, Wattenberg said that he didn’t support paying women to have babies, because “we would have to pay women of all colors to have babies, so we don’t want to do that.”
Assuring the viewer that “these are his words, not mine,” she said that Wattenberg was opposed to increasing the number of births in the U.S. by allowing more immigrants to enter the country, because “the vast majority of those wanting to come to this country today are people of color.”
Finally, the unnamed woman said that Wattenberg claimed that if white women would stop having abortions, “that would solve our birth dearth.”
Her voice rising in righteous indignation, she asked, “Does this sound like racism to you?”
It certainly does. And it would have been, if Wattenberg had said any of the racist things she said he said.
“The Birth Dearth,” which I found in the upper recesses of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, was written in the last years of the Cold War. Wattenberg believed that population in the West was declining, and he feared the decline would have an adverse effect on the role of the United States in the world. The subject of the book was the international world order, not race.
I read the book. Wattenberg did not say any of the racist things the unnamed woman said he said. Not one. Between May 22, when it was posted, and July 2, the video had been viewed 1,343,043 times.
In late spring, a photo on Facebook showed a church marque with the message: “Black folks need to stay out of white churches.”
The organization that posted the photo — Really American — added an editorial comment: “The New Era Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama posted this outside their building. Spread their shame.”
No doubt many Facebook patrons who were familiar with the liberal Really American saw the red, white and blue logo in the upper left corner and assumed that the message had been displayed by a white church that intends to keep blacks out.
Five minutes spent searching the internet revealed that the New Era Baptist Church is an African-American congregation, and the pastor who was responsible for the message was protesting a predominantly white mega-church moving into the inner city.
Whatever you think of the pastor’s marque, the meaning of its message was far from what many, perhaps most, Facebook viewers assumed it was when it appeared on their screens.
The post is over a year old, but it is still being reposted.
Earlier this summer a post appeared on Facebook featuring Malala Yousafzay, the remarkable young Pakistani woman who was shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Beneath the photo of Malala was the stark message: “Forbidden to teach in Quebec.”
Malala was forbidden to teach in Quebec? Really? No, not really.
A reporter for the Montreal Gazette provided details that the post omitted. The legislature recently passed controversial Bill 21, which bars public school teachers and other public service figures from wearing religious symbols at work. It applies to symbols of all religious faiths — crosses, stars of David, clerical collars — not just Islam, though the photo of Malala in a hijab might suggest otherwise.
If Malala had applied to teach in a school in Quebec, the reporter told me, she would not have been allowed to wear a hijab while doing her job. But she did not get a job teaching in Quebec, because she didn’t apply for one. Last I heard she was a student at Oxford. In England, not Canada.
As the means of manipulating public opinion become more sophisticated, we must be critical consumers of social media, refusing to accept posts at face value if they re-enforce what we already believe.
We must be our own in-house fact-checker. The truth is worth the effort.
Speaking of fact-checking, in my last column, I wrote that “Sweet land of liberty” is a line from the national anthem. It’s actually the second line of “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee).” I regret the error.