“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media, Part III

I have written elsewhere: “set aside videos of cute kittens or adolescents cracking up their skateboards. Let’s focus on those other things – political, social, religious, etc. – which get posted on social media and spread like wildfire! I invite you to read the first two parts of this series before reading Part III:

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part I

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part II

Now I would like to update these with a Part III, with several other sources of doubtful “facts.”


There is a whole genre of exposé literature that follows this formula: “I am an ex-[whatever] and I am going to reveal the shocking inside secrets.” Ex-Communist. Ex-Mormon. Ex-Satanist. Ex-Jesuit (Jack Chick’s man, “Alberto,” made that claim, falsely I believe). Ex-nun. Ex-physicist working for CERN. Ex-CIA operative. Ex-NASA scientist. Ex-Muslim. Ex-Freemason. In 2011 the internet was abuzz with “I was in the Illuminati: I’m Going to Tell you Everything, Shocking Expose.”

Of course, sometimes these revelations are legitimate: there are plenty of ex-Scientologists who seem to tell a consistent tale of what they saw on the inside. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses, KKK members, the same. There is a documentary I saw recently that argued that kids in a Christian “tough love” program were being physically and psychologically abused.[1] And sometimes people in high places leak information to the media, provided they remain anonymous.

So, what’s the difference?

One type of Unrighteous Whistle Blower is: they are on the one hand grandiose, uncovering some horrific plot that threatens all humanity; but on the other hand they insist on remaining anonymous, giving out that they are afraid of losing their job, or their reputation, or fear for their personal safety.

Now, if someone doesn’t want to reveal their identity when they reveal some everyday insider information, that’s probably understandable. But let’s think of those “revelations” by “former whatevers” who spill the beans that the human race is about to be destroyed; that the government is poisoning them; that reptiles are running the planet; that the antichrist lives at such-and-such adddress. Issues of life or death. Now, my questions are as follows: (1) What sort of moral defective would shrink from risking their job (or even their life!) if it’s going to save billions from extermination or damnation? (2) And if the “informers” in question thereby prove themselves to be of such low moral fiber, then why in the world should I trust in anything they tell me? Remind me never to hide from the Nazi’s in that guys’s cellar!

For example: on YouTube a “Secret Chemtrail Pilot Speaks” – on condition of anonymity of course! – divulges that the US government is committing genocide or about to do so against its own people. He states: “I risk everything for disclosing so much information, and you will find very few like me. Even my own flight crew, would have me arrested and court martialed, if they knew of this dialogue.” Arrested? Court-martialed? What’s the meaning of such undiluted cowardice, if such a person (if he even exists) could really prevent a Holocaust?! Sorry, friend – either stand up for the human race or push off, but stop peddling your fictions!

“Former-whatevers” play to our confirmation bias: we will believe what they say if it confirms what we already believe, but reject it if it runs contrary to our beliefs. So, before you take someone’s word for it when he says, for example, “Jehovah’s Witnesses secretly torture small animals as part of their worship – Ex-leader reveals all!” you might want to shrug it off as hearsay. [2] The example above, of revelations from “tough love” youth camps also brings out the confirmation bias: some will be predisposed to think that “all teenagers complain they are being abused, therefore they are probably just complaining that they had to make their beds, and it’s probably a false story.” Others might say, “I think that unregulated youth camps breed abuse of authority, so it’s probably true.”


Full disclosure about my own cognitive bias! I am extremely skeptical of people who claim to have gone to heaven or to hell, and then returned to tell me all about it in bestselling books. Multiple bestsellers. And kid’s versions of said books. And videos. Unless your name is the Apostle Paul or the Apostle John or Ezekiel, I will seriously doubt it and insist that it’s the “traveler’s” responsibility to give me undeniable proof. Even if you are a cute kid who says that “Heaven is For Real” or a guy who writes about “My Trip to Heaven: Face to Face with Jesus.”

It is a long-standing tradition, spanning thousands of years, that people claim to take journeys to the Other World for the purpose of promoting their agenda of how This World ought to be run. In his Inferno, Dante told us precisely who would be in hell, and why. He told it as fiction, but his message was clear: he is telling you which of his contemporaries belong in the flames. In the Judaism of the Second Temple, plenty of “seers” went to heaven or hell and told their fellow Jews just who would go where, and when, and why (the Enochian literature, the Assumption of Moses, the Revelation of Metatron – yeah, it’s a real book!) and then spell out what exact form of Judaism will land you in The Good Place.

Here is a good modern example. A few years back, an Ecuadorian teenager Angélica Elizabeth Zambrano Mora claimed to have had a Near Death Experience, in which she spent 23 hours in hell. And who did she see there? Elvis. Pope John Paul II. Michael Jackson. The singer Selena. Selena was in the flames, but she turned to Angélica and said:

‘Please, I ask you to go tell humanity about this, please speak out and do not be silent; go and tell them not to come to this place; go and tell them not to listen to my songs nor sing my songs!’ I asked her, ‘Why do you tell me this; why do you want me to go and say this?’ And she answered, ‘Because every time that they sing and listen to my songs, I am tormented even more and when I am tormented, the person who does this, who sings and listens to these songs that I used to sing when I was alive, is walking to this place. Please, go tell them not to come here; go tell them that hell is real!

I am going on the assumption that Angélica did not go to hell for 23 hours; instead, I choose to spin it that, she “saw” in hell precisely those people who she believed should be there. Michael Jackson, she says, “had satanic covenants: He would come to agreements with the devil in order to achieve fame and attract many fans.” And everyone who likes his songs is in the devil’s trap and also en route to hell. The message is clear: don’t listen to Selena or Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley!


In Part II I wrote:

Group-sourcing is a terrific tool for gathering data – people can send in pictures or information. Then the people in charge always verify information before they use it. Except when they don’t. There are websites where no-one is actually running the show, and people can basically upload their own articles. Beforeitsnews.com is one such fount of disinformation. You don’t have to be a reporter or even check your facts or even sign your articles. I registered with a fake name, just for kicks, and I am now a cub reporter for (cue echo effect!) – Before…Its…News! I was sore tempted to make up some phony news story, just to see how easy it was to get it out there, but I felt that it’s ethically a gray area. Well, not even gray.

Okay, I held out for a year or so, and then succumbed: I spent a couple of hours, fabricating a fake news article about how mutant sunflowers were putting the human race at risk of extinction. I then published it on www.beforeitsnews.com and left it up for about 24 hours.

I even included some (more or less accurate) Hebrew codes of my own devising. After I posted my little experiment, I clicked on it about 100 times, and drove the sunflower article up to #3 most popular. Some people offered in the Comments section that they thought it was true, others – more than I expected, in fact –expressed doubts or made fun of my avatar etc.

Full disclosure: a dear friend, who is my go-to guy for ethical questions, objected to me posting a fake article even as “a sociological experiment.” As I usually do, I took his word on the morality of the issue. And so, I took the article down. But I will share the aftermath.

So what happened next? Google confirms that it had already been referenced on other sites. In fact, someone translated it word for word into Russian, and within a couple of weeks about 30 Russia-language sites had repeated it. My sunflower story is seeing the world!

Fake news is, just as I suspected, extraordinarily easy to create, publish, and make go viral.

I just saw that CBS will be airing a new crime drama this fall, titled “Wisdom of the Crowd.” Its premise: “A tech wiz who attempts to revolutionize crime solving – specifically the unsolved case of his daughter’s murder – with a crowd-sourcing app that utilizes the public for information.” Interesting idea, maybe it will be entertaining. But as someone who has had way too much experience with the wisdom of the online crowd, I cannot imagine any way in which a cop would be able to sift through those mountains of fake data – from the wise guys, the trolls, the conspiracy theorists, the lurkers – and figure out crimes. Robocop seems more plausible, or X-Files. Or even the Yeti chasers over on the National Geographic Channel!

Keep watching the skies! Or rather, keep ignoring the faked news!


[1] I would have to look up the title of the film. Another example, here in Costa Rica, is that there was a scandal a few years ago about one of these tough-love programs, see http://www.ticotimes.net/2006/07/21/tough-love-camp-owner-faces-trial.

[2] An excellent example of how confirmation bias comes into play is the 2009 case of Abby Johnson. She claimed that in her local Planned Parenthood clinic, the administrators pushed the workers to push for more and more abortions, since they were so lucrative. Fox News put out her story as the straight truth (http://www.foxnews.com/us/2009/11/02/planned-parenthood-director-quits-watching-abortion-ultrasound.html), and those who criticized Johnson were charged with having the confirmation bias of the pro-abortion crowd. Slate magazine, on the other hand, took the view that Johnson was making up much of what she said, and that it was the confirmation bias of the pro-lifers that made her credible (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2010/01/07/abby_johnsons_conversion_story_sounds_great_but_appears_to_be_false.html). Confirmation bias: the sword guaranteed to cut both ways!


My articles:

“‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ has its 50th Anniversary”

“Did a NASA Supercomputer Prove the Bible?”

“Christians and Myths”

Did They Discover a Giant Skeleton? Well, No.

“Christian Urban Legends”

Other sources:



‘”I don’t  believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media – Part III,’ by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D. in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Tagged: fake, satire, spam, tabloid, truth