This morning started with a tragic event in Lebanon: A massive explosion rocked the port of Beirut.
It's been just a few hours, and without any verified information having been reported, The Internet got quickly to doing what it does best: spreading (mis)information at the speed of light.
And activists everywhere are taking this opportunity to launch a counterstrike. Without any certainty of who or what caused the explosion, or if it was even a bomb, there are thousands of hot takes pouring in.
People sympathetic or politically aligned with Israel immediately chalked this up to Hezbollah:
People politically aligned against Israel and the IDF, of course, offered an explanation of the events that ran in the exact opposite direction, blaming the IDF for the "bombing" of Beirut.
Remember: there is no legitimate report this was a bomb at all (yet – it's still possible that will be the case). But don't let that stop you, Internet.
Taking even further, there was rampant speculation about exactly what type of bomb this was, with countless people insinuating and insisting (because of the shape of the cloud) it was a nuke:
Both Israel and Hezbollah have reportedly denied involvement in the explosion, but why let that get in our way?
Confirmation Bias is a Helluva Drug
This tragedy fits into a common pattern of activism that I often sum up in conversations with other activists as "confirmation bias is a helluva drug."
Generally speaking, cognitive biases get in the way of good activism. The issue with confirmation bias, as seen here, is that we're subconsciously only looking for that which aligns with our worldview.
If we think Israel and the IDF are evil and perpetrating wanton violence against Palestinians and Muslims without regard for human wellbeing – or vice versa, that Hezbollah are evil and perpetrating wanton violence against Isreal and Jews without regard for human wellbeing – well, then obviously this was an intentional attack.
But all official reports (so far) have said it wasn't. It was an accident – albeit a tragic and terrifying one.
So what do we do instead? How do we stave off confirmation-bias-fueled problematic activism?
We don't need to respond, or form our stance, within minutes.
Instead of saying, "I really have no idea what's going on," we lead with whatever tiny glimpse of an idea we think we might have.
Making things worse, the internet makes the spread of misinformation and information borderline indistinguishable.
Without taking hours to dig into the details yourself, you're left with a, "Do I trust this person's account or that person's?" decision (often they both have blue checks! They both seem legitimate!). And obviously we'll side with the account that seems most similar to our [cognitive-bias-distorted] first impression of the situation.
"Ah, yeah, I figured that was what was going on here." Wow, a real modern day Sherlock Holmes, we are.
But there's a third road: You don't need to form a stance or respond within minutes. You can wait until more information – actual, substantiated, corroborated news – is reported.
You're not doing anyone in Lebanon a service by rapidly retweeting the first hot take you see that supports you current worldview if it ends up being patently false and prevents the truth from being discovered.
(But, if you're doing that, you're probably less worried about the Lebanese and more worried about scoring Internet Points, so you're not likely interested in my take here.)
Maybe we should all be more like Ted Cruz Ate My Son, today's unlikely voice of reason, and, "rather than immediately jumping to warmongering conclusions... take a breath and wait."
Perhaps even more radical: You don't need to form a stance or response at all. Ever.
Unless your stance is well-informed, unless you have spent lots of time trying to understand a phenomenon, learning about the context and history in which it's situated, there's a good chance your "take" isn't helping anything or anybody.
More often than not, an uninformed perspective on a loaded issue is obviously flawed to anyone who has studied the subject, adds noise instead of signal, and gets in everyone's way.
If you don't really know what's going on, or don't have a well-informed argument or perspective, the most useful thing you can say is that.
We need to normalize saying, "Truthfully, I have no idea, but I'm open to learn if you know a lot about this."