Credibility vs Visibility

Lady Gaga has 83.2 million followers on Twitter. The Dalai Lama has approximately 20 million. Cap’n Crunch, the iconic sugary cereal mascot of my youth, has 790. The Weather Channel, 3.8m.

Our ‘truths’ seem to be measured in likes, views, followers and retweets. Visibility, casting itself as the gatekeeper of what we want to believe.

Much has been written about the polarization of people thanks to algorhythms that suggest more of what we want to see and hear. This keeps us in a comfortable, likable, predictable (and dangerous) bubble. Your customized news, entertainment, sports and cultural sources are all here to serve…you.

Kara Swisher the host of the podcast “Pivot,” recently said that ‘feelings are not facts.’ In other words, you cannot just decide not to believe something because you don’t like it or it’s not convenient. You have to do some work.

We used to rely on the teacher, the priest, the judge, the parent, the text as those sources of credibility because they were close to us, visible in the community, tangible and accountable to those around them, and invested in the truth.

Now, that person or information source doesn’t have to be visible to the naked eye or touchable. Credibility is now in the form of upward thumb signs, followers, and shares, a true democratization of what people want rather than what they need to believe. I even read once that most celebrities and influencers don’t even manage their own social media accounts! Can you believe that?

Twitter is starting a crowdsourcing service called ‘birdwatching,’ where, similar to Wikipedia, people can become certified fact checkers and contribute to a credibility rating for postings that trend. On one hand, it’s nice to feel that people are empowered to contribute to truth. On the other, it opens up a world of possibility to those that want to shape others to their versions of what is true.

I belong to a social media group that posts a lot of messages about bikes and bike repair. Lots of people weigh in on a lot of ideas about things from derailleurs to seats to tires. It’s tempting to go with the most liked advice on the best seat to cross Siberia but no one is saying, ‘seats are dumb and don’t exist.’ We all have that basic agreement.

When I was teaching in the 1990s, I used “Lies My History Teacher Told Me,” (by James Loewen) and “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn to offer research based alternative views on factual events. These texts gave voice to the unheard, portraits of actual events that were not invented, but omitted. They made things already credible visible, not credible because they were visible. My students had the opportunity not to decide what to believe (because it was all true), but rather base their opinions on the facts in front of them, contrary as some of them may have seemed. It was also a quieter time, when the information age was only a trickle, allowing students to consider a couple of truths and deciding where to land before they moved onto the next question. Now, it seems as though the firehose is fully opened.

It’s not easy to resist something that has 2M likes or retweets. The visibility, the comfort in knowing others agree, is so human it’s hard to resist. We think something is cute, inspiring, sad, dangerous and we cannot help but to believe it because it makes us feel a certain way.

Feelings are not facts and credibility is not always visible. It takes hard work and a willingness to look past what is easy or agreeable to make up our minds about basic truths that we need to accept in order to keep learning on course and communities together.

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