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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Rush to Judgment

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

I've started this particular newsletter issue about 100 times (+ or -).

I've struggled with exactly how I want to write what I want to write. Words have power. I have a platform. I take both seriously.

For the last nearly two weeks I - and the rest of the world - have been following the war unfolding in Gaza. I've been reading what I can about the conflict and am conflicted. I know that this conflict is not new. I know there is incredible history here. I know there are good and bad players on both sides.

I will admit that I don't completely understand the history. The past several years I have lamented with several colleagues and friends a lack of literacy education in a number of areas in our education system - political, cultural, geographic, historic illiteracy, to name a few. What we learned in elementary through high schools when I was growing up (and I will admit that I am not familiar with what is currently taught) was a basic understanding of western history. I learned nothing about Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Australia except that they were places in the world. That made them exotic and stoked my future curiosity.

I was the student who craved knowledge. I was and still am a nerd. When I realized, as I aged and matured, the wealth of knowledge and things and places to explore, it was like an entirely new world was open to me. And I wanted to know everything! Impossible, but, hey, I have to have goals.

What does the above have to do with anything? Watching the events unfold in the Middle East I realize I am woefully unprepared to comment on anything specific. What do I know? It is ridiculously complicated. It is not new. It is tragic.

It is a disinformation magnet.

That leads me to the title of this newsletter issue - rush to judgment. When news of this nature becomes public, we rush to find information to fill the news vacuum. We want to understand what's happening so we rush to our preferred media outlet to see what we can find. If that outlet isn't prepared to report or to effectively answer our questions because it is still getting the answers itself because it is dedicated to the truth, that might be frustrating. We then rush to Facebook or Instagram or TikTok or YouTube or X (formerly Twitter) to see what is being said. We see photos of events that may or may not be accurate. We see news reports and quotes that may be from real people and may refer to this particular point in time. We see videos that may be violent but may not be from this particular conflict. I have seen several photos purportedly from this conflict that are years old and aren't even from this region. Yet they look real enough and absent other information, we take this to be truthful.

Absent anything else we believe what we see, hear, feel, sense. We need to have someone or something to blame. We need to have explanations. We need to alleviate fear as much as we are able. We need community. We need to be included with others who feel as we do. We feel powerless and helpless. We want to participate and help in whatever way we can but we aren't quite sure how to do that so we click 'like' and then share. We often add our own commentary that may or may not be accurate. We may also make statements in the heat of the moment that we may later regret because our passion is getter the better of us and we have to say something, dammit! Then those statements go viral and we are vilified by others who may also be acting rashly.

Sometimes we rush to do all of those things and sometimes we are wrong. We are hamsters on the disinformation wheel continuously running without an end point hoping for some kibble to chew on and then poop out.

Let me use an example that is not as polarizing as what's happening in Gaza. Do you remember when the Titan submersible vanished in the North Atlantic? I was as riveted to that story as many. I also saw and heard inaccurate stories. It took some time to weed through what actually happened.

I will walk you through how I processed the information. A word of warning - I will also walk you through some of my thoughts at the time, as I remember them. Those thoughts may be considered offensive but I do it for a very good reason which I will also explain.

I don't remember where I first saw the story. If I had to guess, an alert on my phone. My first reaction was, WTF? What are rich people doing now? I remember Googling to find images of the submersible to give me some perspective. I giggled because I had an image of five wealthy people sitting on the bottom of the ocean in what resembled a carbon fiber suppository with no light, nibbling on tea sandwiches, and having to urinate in a can or something. I thought to myself, what will the wealthy not do?

This incident was also being contrasted in the media with news of the boat in the Mediterranean that was carrying migrants from Africa to Europe that capsized causing many more deaths than would have been in the Titan. It wasn't receiving nearly the same coverage. I was interested in that dichotomy.

Then there was an account that the young man, Suleman Dawood, took his mother's place, didn't want to go, and cried because his father, Shahzada Dawood (also a passenger), forced him to.

There were many news accounts that the Titan was unsafe and should not have been allowed in service.

There were reports that pings or bangs could be heard near where the Titan should have been had it just sunk which led people to believe all were still alive and awaiting rescue.

Some believed that there wasn't a porthole and people had to view the Titanic through a camera attached to the outside of the Titan so why pay money for that?

I followed coverage of this incident for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was because it was like driving by a car crash. You slow down to see what happened. I slowed down to see what happened. I read news from a number of outlets to see what happened.

What was the truth and when did it come out? Some time after the incident. It wasn't immediate - and generally, it isn't. What is immediate? The rush to judgment and people's need to fill an information void.

The truth (as I know it): Mr. Dawood was incredibly excited to participate in this excursion. He wasn't in tears and wasn't forced to participate. It was an outing with his father.

The Titan should never have been allowed to be used based on numerous verified reports of inappropriate materials used in construction for such a vehicle, lax safety standards, and a nothing can go wrong/devil may care attitude.

Death was probably quick and relatively painless.

My initial reaction to giggle at people who were perhaps stuck at the bottom of the ocean was horrible. Nothing about this was funny. People died and it shouldn't matter if they were rich or poor or stuck at the bottom of the ocean or not. (You may consider me a monster but let me remind you of some of the memes about this disaster. I'm not so bad if you take at look at them. Context.)

To be fair, seeing memes doesn't excuse my initial reaction. I am entitled to it and if I didn't write it in this newsletter, you would have had no idea. Vilify me if you must. Isn't it better that I had that reaction, regretted it and then changed my mind once I had additional information? If you don't sometimes do what I just did (and I don't mean laugh but I mean think something and then change your mind), you are either a much better person than me or you are lying.

Are there consequences for actions? There should be. My understanding is that OceanGate is closed to business. I imagine there will be legal ramifications. And I learned a lesson. Perhaps don't be so quick to judge. Remember, all lives have value.

Yet there are still some people who believe the initial "news" that came out and didn't bother to fact-check or to look at additional information.

We are seeing the same thing happen in the Middle East. One of my favorite news alerts is from the NewsLit organization (I reference this group quite a lot) and its Rumor Guard. The most recent alert I received was regarding the Al-Alhi Hospital bombing in Gaza City. Initially it was reported that Israel bombed the hospital. Then is was reported that Hamas bombed it. Much disinformation appeared and continues to appear surrounding this incident, specifically. I am not going to share my opinion because I don't think I have enough information to judge.

Much information has also appeared regarding nearly every aspect of this conflict.

Several people I know have referenced the disinformation and have been very passionate in doing so. I do want to caution people, though. Please don't rush to make judgments based on what your "gut" is telling you. Please don't paint an entire population of people with just one brush.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a professor in Northern Ireland about 15 years ago. Students and I were in the country to hear both sides of the conflict known as the "Troubles." He noted that many in Northern Ireland see the conflict between Israel and Palestine as similar to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. There are issues on both sides that span history and aren't easily solved. (I am giving an incredibly abridged version of the conversation but I hope you see my point.) Both sides often blame the other. Innocent people often lose their lives.

Could we look to other countries/areas in which this may also be true? (We in the U.S. wouldn't have to look far.)

Hamas is a terrorist organization. I am confident making that claim because it has been recognized as such by many countries and organizations including the U.S. and the European Union. Hamas does not represent all Palestinians. I am confident making that claim for the same reasons. I am also confident stating that civilians on both sides of the conflict are losing their lives.

To understand this war is to do a deep dive into history. I cannot do that here - nor do I have the knowledge to do that here or anywhere. I will, however, educate myself because it is important to me to understand this historic conflict. It will take more to solve it than thoughts and prayers. I will reach out to people I know on both sides of this conflict who are affected to let them know that I am supporting them if only with thoughts and prayers.

I don't want to make this issue about war. I want it to be a warning. Please don't react to and act on the first piece of information you see or receive. Please be mindful that disinformation is going to be rampant. Some of it will not be purposely inaccurate; some of it most certainly will.

Why? Disinformation may incite violence or encourage you to hate the "other" because doing so may allow for a gain of some sort for the side sharing disinformation. If I want the world to think all Jews are evil and want everyone to deny the Holocaust, I might create videos and/or news stories that make it look like Israel bombed the hospital. I could probably make those stories and images believable (I am pretty savvy with editing software). I could share them on social media and people would like, comment and share. Now I have a following and a narrative that is completely untrue but I've probably gotten what I wanted. And, sadly, I may actually believe the narrative I am sharing. Why would I want people to think that? It could be as ridiculous as having had one encounter with a Jewish individual that really pissed me off. It could be that I learned this hate from my family or a group I've joined online. It could be any number of things. I want others to join me because this is my community and I believe it to be true and/or I am an asshole.

I am oversimplifying, of course. I will spend more time in future issues discussing why people create and disseminate disinformation and why they believe.

In the meantime, what do I want you to do?

  • Make sure you check your sources. Remember that even reputable sources will make mistakes from time to time. They will also correct mistakes. If a "news" outlet doesn't correct mistakes, find another outlet.

  • If it sounds too good to be true - or too bad to be true - perhaps it is.

  • Wait until verified sources speak or report. This may take more time than you like. Be patient.

  • Think about where you get your information (the embedded links in this issue are great resources to help weed through disinformation).

  • Please don't stereotype and assume that all members of a group feel and act the same way.

  • Care before you share.

  • Don't lose your curiosity. Ask questions. Continue to learn.

Many holidays are approaching and those holidays often require family and friend get-togethers. I think we all have family and/or friends we may not agree with. Are you prepared to have difficult conversations about controversial topics? (I'm looking at you politics.) If not, stay tuned. In future issues, I plan to unpack how to talk to people who may believe disinformation. Good times here at WTF.

Remember, I wrote a book. Tentative publication date: May 2024. You will be able to preorder soon enough. I will let you know when. Title: Fake News, Witch Hunts and Conspiracy Theories: An Infodemiologist's Guide to the Truth.

I wish each of you peace.

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