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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Rush to Judgment: Context Matters


I recently had a conversation with someone close to me who gave me the idea for this issue. (He doesn't know that and doesn't read this, sadly.) I guess talking to people is a good idea and a pillar of good communication.


What I heard him say (paraphrased even though I am using quotes), "I can't believe anything anymore since I saw that Buzz Aldrin came out and said that he never landed on the moon. It didn't happen."


This is from someone who likes to bait me and get me all riled up. I've recently stopped taking the bait because, as with many believers in conspiracy theories, there is not much you can say or do to change their minds.


That last comment probably gave you pause. I've been using this newsletter as a way to educate people about how to recognize disinformation and misinformation and how to talk to people who may believe untruths.


But......


There is a limit. Those who have gone down the figurative rabbit hole may not come out. In this case, I could have Mr. Aldrin show up in the living room to explain and it wouldn't matter. Are there ways to get them? Maybe. That's a topic for another newsletter or a tome.


Let's me share how I handled this situation. I let him speak and then those of us in the room changed the subject. Redirection. It often works.


Then I did my due diligence and looked it up. Where did this gem come from? Who is sharing it? What the hell?


Here's what I found.


Evidently, Mr. Aldrin was on the Conan O'Brien show in 2016. Mr. O'Brien said that he watched Mr. Aldrin land on the moon. Mr. Aldrin corrected him and said what he watched was a simulation/animation. Conspiracy theorists took that to mean that Mr. Aldrin didn't land on the moon. It played into the theory that the moon landing was faked. In fact, Mr. Aldrin clarified and said that no one recorded him stepping on the moon because.....no one was there to video record it. Video record.


Neither Mr. Aldrin nor the other astronauts on the mission had the ability to capture this historic event on video. There is, however, an incredibly famous photo of Mr. Aldrin walking on the moon taken by Neil Armstrong. (If you zoom in you can see the reflection of someone taking the photo with the ship in the background.) Media outlets also were unable to get to the moon ahead of the landing to set up cameras to capture the event. (Of course, if they were able to do that, Mr. Aldrin wouldn't have been the first to walk on the moon, but I digress.) That doesn't mean it didn't happen.


Did you see that date? Recall that I've discussed timeliness in previous newsletters. When something is reported or studied does matter. Think about this, though. This was a clip from a talk show from 2016. That's six, almost seven years ago. That's ancient! Yet it resurfaced. If you think that something that might be trending today can't come back once something new pops up, think again. Gah! We can't win the war on disinformation (but we will keep trying).


What does this have to do with context? If you take what Mr. Aldrin said without looking into the context of how it was said or why, you might assume that he is saying the moon landing was faked. However, watch the entire clip and you will see differently. Don't rush to judgment without doing some research. If it seems suspect, it likely is.


Something I worry about as a professor is a student taking something I've said out of context. That might happen if someone were to take just a snippet of my lesson or conversation and circulate it on social media without giving the context or the entire story. An example? I teach a course on crisis communication. Often I will give the students a "crisis" to work on. That crisis is often something that could happen but that is completely made up by me. Let's suppose they take that "crisis" and share it. If they don't note that it's taken out of context, someone or many may believe it.


Possible crisis scenario: "The mayor of our town was accused of extorting money from the firefighters union."


Class assignment: Assess whether this is a crisis or a problem. Then tell me how you, as the mayor's public relations expert, would address this issue. I might also say, suppose it is true and then suppose it isn't. How you respond may differ.


If all you saw was "The mayor of our town was accused of extorting money from the firefighters union," you might get very upset if you live in this town. Even more upset if you are a firefighter. If, however, you see that it is part of a class assignment, you might giggle.


Context.


I am seeing far too many examples of a rush to judgment and many of them are in academia. To be fair, it could be because I am in academia and pay close attention to these issues.


A year or so ago a humanities professor at a midwestern university recorded a Zoom lecture for his students for the first day of class. The video was intended to be humorous and, as he said, "to get the juices flowing." If you take some of his comments out of the video without watching/listening to the video, you might think this man should be fired. Calling students "vectors of disease," and noting that he assigns grades before the class starts were two comments. When I first saw the comments out of context, I thought, holy cow. What is going on here? Then I watched the video. It's actually quite hilarious. It was not intended to offend. He was suspended as a result.


Rush to judgment. Context.


Posted comments aren't the only thing that may be taken out of context. Often we see people use photos or videos out of context to "prove" a point. At the height of the Covid pandemic, we saw many photos and videos used completely out of context. One of the more popular and egregious shows body bags stacked up allegedly in a New York City hospital. The photo is real but it's not of bodies in a New York City hospital. It is of a hospital in Ecuador. The link I provided will take you to the News Literacy website. I've written about this site before. It's well worth a look and well worth subscribing to. This same photo, as noted on the NewLit site has been used in other ways also. I guess that's one way to reuse and recycle.


If you are faced with information that seems untrue or seems to be taken out of context, find the context. Communicate the context. Think before acting. Care before you share.

Next week is News Literacy Week. I will talk about some of the tools you may use to determine if something is real or doctored or taken out of context. In future issues, I will also tackle how you might try to lure people out of conspiracy rabbit holes.

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