Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.
Every once in a while, a social media post gets decontextualized, blown out of proportion, and ends up becoming a proof of how we live in the “post-truth age.”
This was the case recently, in a rather humorous incident, when the French scientist Etienne Klein was forced to apologize after he shared a photo claiming that it shows a distant star caught by the James Webb Telescope. The photo in fact shows a slice of Chorizo.
A Scientist’s Joke Gone Bad
French Atomic Energy Commission director Etienne Klein posted a picture purporting to show a distant star called Proxima Centauri.
"This level of detail ... a new world is revealed every day," the scientist said in the tweet, which was sent to more than 90,000 followers on Monday.
Professor Klein has later acknowledged that the glowing celestial body shown in the photo was actually a slice of Spanish Chorizo sausage.
The tweet ended up actually misleading many people who believed the claim to be true.
Misbar conducted a search on social media and found that a significant number of people believed and shared the claim.
People might have believed the claim without asking any questions because they did not expect a scientist to joke about it.
Apologising for what he called "a scientist's joke" Klein alleged that his aim was to remind people to "be wary of arguments from people in positions of authority."
Klein further emphasized, "I come to present my apologies to those who may have been shocked by my prank, which had nothing original about it."
The Post-Truth Age
The incident serves as a great reminded of why internet users should not trust anything they see on social media. Even people who are careful about who and what they trust on social networks sometimes fall prey to misleading news. This is a simplified explanation of why we now dwell in the post-truth age.
The post-truth era, post-veracity era, and other phrases are all used to describe how “the truth” as a concept is under attack during our times. The multiplicity of online news, and the possibility for anyone to post anything online has compromized real facts with a plethora of alternative facts.
We cannot judge or accurately predict what people will believe on social media, because this is contingent upon people’s backgrounds, level of education, and their skills of critical thinking. However, some key characteristics enable us to predict what people might believe to be true.
There are several factors that influence people into believing a claim on social media. To begin with, the level of interaction with the social media post sharing the claim is important. People generally tend to follow others. Hence, if a large number of people believe and share a claim, it is unlikely that many others will doubt it. Moreover, if the account that first shared the claim is verified, or is regarded as a knowledgeable figure, people tend to believe the claim with little resistance.
The James Webb Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is an infrared astronomy telescope. A great deal of improvement in infrared resolution and sensitivity allows it to view objects that were too distant, or faint for its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
This July 2022, NASA released photos by the James Webb Telescope. The photos, which show distant galaxies and nebulae in high resolution, were extremely celebrated by the media, the scholastic community, and people around the globe. However, several misleading fake claims proliferated after the photos were released.
For example, many people falsely claimed that the photos released by NASA were fabricated or fake.