Verify Before You Share a Lie aims to reduce harm, misinformationWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Thousands of us do it every day: We click a button and share a post on social media. We think it’s harmless, but those shares often spread misinformation.
That’s why Toledo resident Gina Fielding is asking people to “Verify Before You Share a Lie.”
Her website conducts background research on people to verify whether they are really a sex offender, wanted by police or missing, as these reports are common on social media. Her research is used to help people determine whether they should share the information on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.
“People want to help and want to get this bad guy off the streets,” said Fielding, a social media expert. “I call them Internet warriors. They hit that share button thinking they’re doing a good thing and that makes sense. However, with everything positive, there is a negative, and that is misinformation spreads as good information.”
About 35,000 people thought they were doing a good thing when they shared bad information about 23-year-old Toledo resident Chad Lesko last year. Lesko’s ex-girlfriend created a fake Facebook account and posted lies about him, saying he was wanted by the Toledo Police Department for raping four children, one his own son.
The post went viral and soon Lesko was being harassed and nearly assaulted by strangers in a park. He received death threats and began having anxiety attacks that put him in the hospital several times.
“I see a lot of misinformation and it’s one of my pet peeves,” Fielding said. “It destroyed his life for months. He volunteers at a church every month handing out food to families. Within five minutes the police showed up and had him on the ground in front of the people he volunteers for. He’s humiliated and [the police] wasted valuable time.
“Here’s this kid whose life has been turned upside down and he doesn’t know how to handle it,” Fielding said. “He was devastated. … Kids are slitting their wrists over this kind of thing. They feel like their life is over.”
After witnessing Lesko’s case, Fielding and her friend Cerise Claussen got together and came up with the name Verify Before You Share a Lie.
Claussen was also deeply disturbed by Lesko’s story and is pleased they can do something positive to combat negative misinformation about innocent people.
“I could not stand seeing that kid being judged … when he really didn’t do what he was accused of,” Claussen said. “Everybody judged wrongly and that gets me. … Occasionally, he still has problems with it.”
Fielding’s and Claussen’s efforts grew into a full-fledged “misinformation-fighting operation.”
Not everyone has the time or the access of a journalist to check out whether information is good or bad, Fielding said. That’s why she spends her own time, without financial compensation, checking with police departments, court records and missing persons’ organizations.
Fielding recently worked to verify a submission about a Blade article that reported a rapist at Franklin Park Mall. Turns out the article was from 2003 and police had caught the suspect days after the incident, Fielding said.
“People were sharing it and going ‘This is awful.,” Fielding said. “People were on the lookout and police were getting calls. It’s from 2003. It’s as simple as looking at the date.
“They’ve already caught [the suspect] within days. It’s wasting police time. This is what happens [with] Internet warriors. They want to help. I think their hearts are in the right place.”
When a situation has been resolved it will be posted to her website and Facebook page with a “RESOLVED” stamp on it. If the information is verified, it will be stamped with “VERIFIED” for true or listed as “DEBUNKED” if false. If Fielding could not verify whether the information was true or false, she will advise her client to use caution when sharing.
“We will do all the work and you will be able to check back to the site within minutes to hours to see if the post is true or not,” Fielding said. “Then you can be comfortable in your sharing and not take part in potentially ruining someone’s life.”
Fielding said it’s difficult to know how prevalent misinformation is on social media because there is so much information out there in so many different forms. One of the biggest issues she sees is outdated information. For example, two girls from Wood County were recently reported missing but were found within days. People continued to share the story even after it was resolved.
“I don’t know why it happens or how it happens, but things resurface a lot,” she said. “There’s a picture going on for a year now. It’s an old lady standing with a poster board. She’s looking for her son. It gives her name and her email address. He was found last July and he just moved back in with his mother and they continue to get emails. He’s flustered because his picture keeps circulating. People think it’s just recent and they share it.”
Police departments are grateful for Fielding’s efforts, she said. While testing the logistics of her system at the Chicago Police Department, Fielding said she explained what she was doing to officers there and they said “Thank you.”
“I said, ‘You probably waste a lot of time on these calls’ and they said ‘You have no idea,’” Fielding said.
Fielding has been working on the website since April.
“It’s not as easy as a Google search,” she said. “What will set our website apart is the accuracy. Our information has to be accurate. It has to be 100 percent sure. There’s no room for mistakes. Our credibility is our name. That’s why we use only credible sources. I check my sources and my sources’ sources.”
Sharing is important and helpful, she said, but needs to be done in a responsible manner. If misinformation can be stopped, “We should stop it,” she said.
“We have a very powerful tool at our fingertips: social media,” Fielding said. “But with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re not careful you can inadvertently hurt people or waste time.
“We’re getting people to rethink before they click that button.”
For more information, visit verifybeforeyousharealie.com.