Don’t Believe Everything You Read…Especially Online!

When I was a kid my dad frequently told me: “don’t believe everything you read.” This was most often in response to some nugget of information I chose to share which he didn’t believe. However frustrating this was to me as a child (and it was very frustrating!), I’m sure it played a large part in shaping what I consider my “healthy skepticism” about most things (and what others, I’m sure, generally find simply annoying). At any rate, this advice came to mind recently when I read a story about a San Francisco-based plastic surgeon who had made some egregious medical errors and yet continued to enjoy a glowing online reputation.

As marketers and PR folks–like me–work to gain exposure for their clients and take advantage of the many positive possibilities that online media provide, this is an issue that is likely to grow even more prominent. Who can you believe these days? Who could you ever believe is, I suppose, an equally valid question. But like everything related to e-communication, the issue becomes magnified when messages can quickly be shared with literally millions of unsuspecting and, often, naive, folks.

P.T. Barnum is generally credited with having said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That was back in the 1800’s! While many doubt that he actually did say this, the sentiment resonates. People can be gullible. Or, framed in a more positive way, trusting. We believe what people tell us most of the time and rarely look for evidence or ask for substantiating information, especially if the source of the information “seems credible” or comes from a “reliable source.”

Usually the danger in this lies primarily in the spread of untruths–think of the proliferation of various “urban legends” that spread like wildfire across the Internet and via forwarded emails on a regular basis. ( and, by the way, are good sources to use for checking out these claims.)

But, sometimes, as with Dr.  Rajagopal, the impact can be more severe. It’s a new world out there. As a communicator I think that:

  • It pays to have a personal philosophy that “honesty is the best policy” – and, yes, that’s possible even in the “dark world of PR.”
  • It pays to check your facts and not perpetuate misinformation by randomly passing along information that’s interesting but possibly not true.
  • It pays to have a certain amount of healthy skepticism – to seek facts and data, to ask good questions and to recognize that even if you saw it in the Wall St. Journal it just might not be true. You never know.

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