What do Jimmy Kimmel, lobsters, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have in common?
They all made news recently, and the reason they made news illustrates the new realities — and challenges — presented by today’s quickly changing news landscape.
Let’s start with Jimmy Kimmel. Last month, he made news when he revealed that he produced the video of a woman’s “twerk gone wrong” — a viral sensation viewed more than 9 million times by people who ostensibly thought it was an authentic event. Who could resist watching this Miley Cyrus wannabe unceremoniously crash into a candle-laden coffee table and have her pants catch on fire?
Kimmel said his point was to raise the public’s skepticism of Internet content — to temper their willingness to believe everything they see and read online. Some critics, however, thought Kimmel was only exacerbating the problem by throwing additional trash onto pile.
“A hoax like this doesn’t point to lapses in transparency, it clouds our view of everything,” wrote Daniel Engber of Slate. “YouTube shows the world in all its weirdness, and gives a window on the geek sublime. When liars spread their hoggish propaganda, they mist the landscape with distrust.”
Clearly, discerning fact from fiction on the Internet has never been more difficult. Especially for high school students.
When defining “immortality” during a 10th grade vocabulary lesson recently, I asked students for mnemonic ideas — people or animals, for instance, that could help them remember the meaning of the word. One student replied, “Lobsters.”
Say what? Lobsters?
The student explained that he had just read somewhere that lobsters never die. My incredulity piqued, I immediately took to Google and projected the findings on the classroom’s SMART Board. It seems there had been a rash of stories recently concerning how “lobsters hold the key to immortality.” The first four or five Google listings included some semblance of that idea in their titles.
The immediate response from my students? “We told you so.”
Yes, they surely told me. Until we actually looked at more than just the title of each entry, noting the source and then actually reading the content. Finally, we came upon the entry from Smithsonian.com — inconveniently located on the bottom half of the page — whereupon we learned that “lobsters continue eating, reproducing and growing until the end. And there is an end — they’re not immortal. But like most decapod crustaceans, which also include crayfish and shrimp, they have indeterminate growth.”
This idea that lobsters are immortal? A zombie lie — an untruth that keeps re-emerging online. Apparently, it was originally born after a 1997 news story reported some of the lobster’s biological abnormalities, including the fact that they “don’t age the way other living creatures do — they don’t lower their reproductive ability, slow their metabolism or decrease in strength.” From there, the story was spun into constantly recurring memes and social-media discussions that trumpeted the lobster’s godlike qualities.
So for my students, it must be true — they saw it on the Internet!
Unfortunately, it’s not just high school students lacking critical-thinking skills.
A recent study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that “Americans were below average when it comes to skills needed to compete in the global economy.” The study measured the math, technology, and literacy skills of “5,000 U.S. adults between ages 16 and 65, and compared them with similar samples of adults from 21 countries.”
“[I]n the category of ‘problem-solving in technology-rich environments,’ or digital skills, U.S. adults lagged behind their counterparts in 14 countries.” No doubt, it wasn’t just kids perpetuating those lobster lies.
So Jimmy Kimmel, lobsters, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development succinctly represent the new challenges for journalists in the digital age. It’s a simple equation, really: viral videos + memes + an aliterate public = a misguided citizenry.
It’s a scary thought. But I can’t worry about that just now. I have to go check my Facebook page.
Barth Keck is an English teacher who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .