What a fake stress test on Facebook says about the state of our democracy
July 21, 2020
Perhaps you’ve seen the image on Facebook purporting to have been designed by a Japanese neurologist. If the image is still, you are calm. If it moves a bit, you are slightly stressed. If it spins wildly, you are apparently very stressed.
The image is an optical illusion. It doesn’t indicate whether you’re calm or stressed. Rather, the degree of movement is a normal reaction of the eyes and brain and has nothing to do with stress. Also, the Japanese neurologist doesn’t exist. The image was created by a graphic designer in Ukraine. This according to one of the organizations that fact-check content posted on Facebook.
When several friends posted this recently, I was surprised by the number of people who responded, sharing their stress level. Others, far fewer in number, commented that the image wasn’t a stress test at all, and immediately under the post was a link to the fact-checking site indicating the same.
The image social media memes have claimed will indicate your level of stress. It has been debunked, but continues to spread through social media sharing.
The number of people posting their stress level in response to this “test,” despite evidence to the contrary, is distressing when you consider we are consuming and sharing news and information on social media platforms more than ever before. The fact that we can regard as real something that is not or see something in an image that we want to see, suggests an openness to being misled and manipulated by the purveyors of false or misleading political claims and information. This is cause for concern in a democratic republic in which citizens are responsible for choosing their leaders.
While Facebook has stated a commitment to fact-check content, and did in this case, this does not extend to political speech. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told CNBC he does not think social networks should be fact-checking what politicians post. “I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg said. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say.”
This reticence to regulate political speech extends to advertising. In October 2019, Facebook announced that it would allow politicians to run ads on the social network, even if they include misinformation. The company is reviewing this policy, weighing a temporary ban on political advertising in the final days before the U.S. election in November.
The fact that we can regard as real something that is not or see something in an image that we want to see, suggests an openness to being misled and manipulated by the purveyors of false or misleading political claims and information. This is cause for concern in a democratic republic in which citizens are responsible for choosing their leaders.
Zuckerberg’s broad deference to the political process and political speech is understandable given the difficulty of parsing political claims and the fact that a certain level of disinformation is part and parcel of the electoral process.
This difficulty extends beyond social media. In a recent court case, attorneys for Fox News argued that host Tucker Carlson is not expected to present his audience with facts—even when he says he is doing just that. Saying Carlson’s show is commentary, not news, attorney Erin Murphy argued journalistic standards of truth and accuracy simply do not apply.
Meanwhile, digital technology is making it easier to fabricate convincing fake videos using algorithmic techniques to depict people doing and saying things they’ve never done or said. Now, with the emergence of this deepfake technology, the ability of nefarious individuals to produce convincing fake video will be almost as widespread as the ability to lie. This will impact our politics.
Given this reality, it is critical that Christian citizens be responsible consumers and distributors of political news and information. We would do well to heed the ancient wisdom of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Our vision is clouded by the reality of the human condition. We are fallen, finite, creatures. We do not see clearly. We have biases. Our view is obstructed. Even what we think we see clearly we see only dimly; “through a glass darkly” in the language of the King James Bible. Therefore, we approach all of life, including politics, with a degree of modesty regarding our ability to know fully what is true and good.
Given the ubiquity of misinformation and falsehoods masquerading as truths, what are we to do? Paul also wrote, “test everything. Hold fast to what is good.” (1Thessalonians 5:21).
Test everything. Check the source. Is the publication or news site reliable? Do they state a commitment to fact-checking what they publish? Do they publish corrections when they get it wrong? Consult multiple sources for different viewpoints on an issue. Seek discomfort. Read sources who provide opinions that challenge your own. Exercise judgement in what you choose to share. Hold fast to what is good.
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen.