April 28, 2013 at 10:49 AM ET
Question: I have a friend on Facebook that tends to fall for a lot of Internet hoaxes and misinformation. We aren't close or anything, but I'd like to stop the spread of myths. Is there a tactful way to correct him? Should I do it publicly or privately?
Answer: Dealing with misinformation on the Internet is never easy. In fact, if you're not careful, you can end up spreading it yourself (though there are ways to avoid that). Before you decide to take any course of action, it would be best to keep in mind that it could very easily be you on the other side of the comment box. So, how would you like to be corrected if you were unwittingly spreading falsehoods?
Another thing to consider is that if you take it upon yourself to join the Internet Truth Legion, you're signing up for a full-time job. Even if you stick to Facebook, millions of links are shared every day on the social network. That includes everything from fake Facebook privacy chains to unwanted political discussions. You can't prevent everyone from being wrong everywhere and trying to could easily cast you in the role of that guy who always has to chime in.
Still, there are certain occasions where it's not only okay to correct someone, but helpful. In fact, you can make a decent living connecting people with useful information on the Internet. Where do you draw the line, though? Here are a few tips to consider before pressing submit:
The quickest way to decide if you should chime in is to see if someone else already has. For simple hoaxes it usually doesn't take long for someone to weigh in with "This is not true," and a link to Snopes. Belaboring the point with the same information won't do much besides raising tensions with all parties involved.
The exception, of course, is if you can still contribute something new. Chances are you don't need to send them three paragraphs proving the President didn't really abolish all taxes. However, discussing what's really going on with Facebook's newest round of privacy changes may be something that you can contribute to if someone hasn't already.
If you're dealing with a conversation started by someone you don't know well, get to the point and stick to the facts. Sharing helpful information that others don't seem to know is one thing, but getting into an argument is an uphill battle you're unlikely to win.
As we said earlier, it's important to remember that you could be on the receiving end of a correction just as easily. So, ask yourself before you post: how would I like a stranger to publicly call me out online? Would you even want it to be public at all? If you're friends with the person on Facebook, you can just as easily send them a private message give them a chance to remove the link if they so choose.
There may be some situations where that's not the best option—your friend doesn't respond to messages or has chat disabled—and in those cases, proceed with caution. Remember how to give critical feedback without being a jerk. Above all else, respect your friend's freedom. An outright confrontation could be less effective than helpfully offering alternative evidence or asking questions.
Of course, the argument could be made that more direct confrontations and even a little profanity may be beneficial sometimes. However, it would be best to reserve those for friends you're familiar with, lest you end up with more problems than when you started.
Have a plan to abandon every thread you engage
From your perspective, it may be a simple matter of correcting false information, but if you've been on the Internet for more than five minutes, you probably know that things can spiral out of control quickly. Before you send a single character, know how to abandon ship.
Being helpful and pointing out a hoax or false rumor is nice, but if doing so begins to damage your ability to be productive, it's time to hang up your hat. Everyone has that one friend that will continue to re-share everything in their feed, no matter how many times they're reminded to double-check. Sometimes the best solution is to say nothing at all.
Ultimately, you have to realize that you're not going to fix the Internet's problems single-handedly, which is a very liberating thought. You are free to do other things. Your life does not need to center around exposing Nigerian princes.
Images by Ben Crowe, and xkcd.