It seems like the news is always telling us new reasons it thinks we should be outraged. A woman won a small fortune in court for spilling hot McDonalds coffee in her lap. Auto manufacturers are making millions of extra unwanted cars and just letting them pile up. Amazon was granted an obvious patent on photographing objects against a white background. And so on, and so forth.
Odds are that many of the stories you see in your Facebook or Twitter feed every day are carefully crafted to induce the maximum amount of outrage. Why? Because that drives reblogs, shares, and page views even better than those awkward “You’ll never believe this amazing thing!” headlines that have been popping up lately.
People seem to like being outraged, and passing that outrage on to their friends. Maybe it’s a survival trait, hardwired into us from the days when we used to live in caves and tussle with sabertooths. Whatever the reason, we’re quick to share these things. Perhaps quicker than we should be.
Whenever outrage enters the mix, the actual truth is almost always different or more complicated than the story we’ve been fed. The McDonalds coffee actually was served at dangerously high temperatures. Those “extra unwanted cars” are actually just being held temporarily at ports and distribution centers before being shipped on (and the story was based on five-year-old photos to boot). And that “obvious” patent, if you dig a little deeper, actually turns out to be the solution to a complicated problem (how to get rid of all shadows when taking the photo so they don’t have to be edited out in Photoshop afterward) that photographers are continuously trying to solve.
It’s an old, old cognitive trick that if you tell someone something that seems counterintuitive, they’ll believe it because it seems to go against conventional wisdom. That’s something many of these stories exploit. We’re all too ready to believe, without further investigation, that after years and years of controversy over granting obvious patents, the patent office would happily kick out another one, or that Amazon would waste its time and money seeking to patent something so simple it would likely get tossed out. We should try to guard against that.
If a story seems too simple or too outrageous to be true, research it before you pass it on. Google it, check Snopes, be a little skeptical. If the story does turn out to be true, or at least to be reported the same way across all sources, you might even find a better article about it to pass on. And be aware of the source. A major newspaper is a lot more likely to have done its homework and present the story in a more neutral light than a little partisan blog.
The news is going to try to provoke our sense of outrage to spread its stories, much like plants make themselves tasty to various animals to spread their seeds—and in so doing, it often distorts the stories away from the facts. We should at least take the time to think about these stories before we pass them on.