Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or, no, Abraham Lincoln did not invent Facebook
Posted on Wednesday, May 9, 2012
So the big meme rocketing around the social media universe yesterday was that Abraham Lincoln had filed a patent application for a very Facebook-sounding newspaper in 1845:
Lincoln was requesting a patent for “The Gazette,” a system to “keep People aware of Others in the Town.” He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where “every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.”
This, of course, is raging bullshit. But that didn’t stop it from being the Online Rage of the Day, as people passed the link around to each other, completely uncritically.
I say “uncritically” because even a brief perusal of the blog post making the claim, by someone writing under the name Nate St. Pierre, should have made it obvious that it was false. The post offered one (1) piece of hard evidence to back up its argument: a blurry, low-res scan of a newspaper page purported to be the “Visual Appendix” mentioned above. The image quality is so poor that you can’t read any of the text on the page; all you can really make out is Lincoln’s picture at the top left (looking suspiciously crisper than the text surrounding it) and the banner reading “SPRINGFIELD GAZETTE” across the top.
A cursory examination of this supposed page makes it obvious that it’s been digitally altered — newspapers didn’t have the technology to print photographs until the 1880s (they had to make do with engravings and illustrations until then), so a photo of Lincoln in an 1840s newspaper makes no sense, and there’s a suspicious blank space next to “Springfield” in the dateline: “Springfield December 24, 1845.” The explanation for the blank space came soon enough, when the original scanned page was turned up showing that it was from the Gazette of Springfield, Massachusetts, rather than Lincoln’s town of Springfield, Illinois. The hoaxer had simply digitally erased “Massachusetts” and pasted a photo of Lincoln in the top right of the page.
But my point in writing this isn’t to complain that everyone isn’t an Internet sleuth. It’s to complain that even if you aren’t, this story shouldn’t have made it past your smell test.
The reason is a simple principle: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Here we have a truly extraordinary claim: that a future President of the United States, who had no other involvement with media or journalism in his career, had, before his public life had even begun, envisioned a revolutionary new type of newspaper, and had been committed enough to the idea to seek a patent on it.
That’s a pretty big claim! If it were true, it would upend much of what historians think they know about the young Lincoln. Lincoln’s life is one of the most closely studied and minutely researched in world history; an old saw has it that more books have been written about him than anyone except Napoleon Bonaparte and Jesus. And yet here, supposedly, is a chapter in the great man’s life that somehow all these authors completely missed.
And all the evidence you have to back up this startling assertion is… a blurry scan of an old newspaper page? No patent application documents? (The author claims he saw those documents at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, but for some reason neglected to copy them.) No names of Lincoln scholars or other experts who can back up the assertion? (The author mentions one researcher at the Lincoln Library, but only gives a first name — “Matt” — which conveniently makes it difficult to find that person for confirmation.) Not even a transcription of the unreadable text on the scanned page?
That’s it? Just a single, unreadable JPEG, and a bunch of unconfirmable, uncheckable assertions? That’s all you’ve got?
That should have been taken as the signal that there was nothing to see here — maybe you’ve got something, maybe not, but I can’t believe you until you come back with harder evidence. But it was not. The story spent a day rocketing around Facebook, Twitter and the rest, getting passed from person to person without a hint of skepticism. (How many people even read the post before they pulled the trigger on their Likes and Retweets? Who knows.)
The story eventually picked up enough momentum that popular bloggers started writing about it, and they, too, passed it along uncritically, at least until their commenters started tearing the story apart for them. But by that point the damage was done; the blog posts appeared to reinforce the veracity of the story, which only made it spread farther and faster. Eventually the blog posts were corrected and the Tweets and Likes died down, but by that point it didn’t really matter.
In some respects this is an old story; attractive falsehoods have always spread faster than boring truths. But I feel like in the social media age we have crossed a threshold of some sort — mostly because the dilemma journalists are familiar with of “the story too good to check” has become a dilemma that non-journalists have to grapple with too. One of the things that disturbed me about my first engagement with Twitter, back in 2008, was how frequently I was bombarded with assertions that turned out later to be untrue. Nobody cared enough to look into them; it was easier and more fun to just pass them along.
This is one of my primary sources of discontent with the direction Internet culture has taken. Ever since the first days of the World Wide Web, those of us who were involved in building things for it took it as a primary mandate to make publishing easier. And step by step, we did — from hand-coded HTML pages, to WYSIWYG editors, to content management systems, to blogs, to Twitter, each step removed some friction from the publishing process. And as a result, with each step more people started publishing their thoughts online. Which always struck me as a Good Thing.
But the social network age has exposed the flip side of that mandate — the easier it is for people to publish, the less time they will spend thinking about what they publish. When publishing is reduced to its barest essence, as on Twitter — when it’s just an empty box and a “Submit” button — people will publish anything and everything.
And that includes stuff that they later wish they hadn’t. One of the most common stories of recent years has been prominent people embarrassing themselves on Twitter, because publishing on Twitter is so easy that it’s easy to just blurt out whatever’s on your mind — even stuff that pops in your head when you’re drunk off your ass in a bar, or in a fit of anger at somebody, or otherwise temporarily out of your mind. All you have to do is pull out your smartphone before you come back to your senses and suddenly that thought that would previously only have been exposed to a few people around you is held out in the light for the whole world to see. The wonder isn’t that this has led so many people to make fools of themselves, it’s that there are people exposed to it who haven’t made fools of themselves. (Yet.)
But while it might be better for everybody if we made publishing just a little harder — just added enough friction to the process to force you to think before you tweet — that’s never going to happen. That ship has sailed. The only solution, I think, is for the rest of us to learn the lessons that journalists have learned the hard way. And one of those lessons is extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
So next time, before you Like or Tweet or forward, stop and think. Ask yourself if what you’re reading passes that test. And if it doesn’t, step away from the social media cannon before you make a bad problem worse.
This entry (and everything else on this blog) was written by Jason A. Lefkowitz. Did you like it? Subscribe to this blog's feed to get new stuff the moment it's posted. Want to read more like this? Hit the archives for more than ten years' worth of essays, or jump right to The Best of Just Well Mixed. Angry and wanting to know who to punch? Here's more information about me, including how to get in touch by email and various social networks.