30 March 2013

Why naps are better than infographics, or why the PM is not a shape-shifting reptilian

So, when I first started this blog, I did promise (threaten?) the occasional rant.  I suppose it's time.  This has nothing to do with religion, or magic, or the esoteric tradition.  Sometimes I just get irked.  Sue me. (actually, don't sue me, that's a hassle.  On the other hand, I don't have any money, so it isn't really worth your while.)

Infographics, at least as I understand them, were originally used by news outlets to provide information in a quickly digestible form so that people would have access to important data without having to do extensive and difficult research themselves.

In the age of the Internet, Facebook infographics have become a common way to make an argument quickly and reach a wide audience. I don't think that I've ever reposted an infographic.  I might have done.  There are a few issues I feel sufficiently passionately about that I might have sent some clever picture on its merry way through the internets.  I know that I've reposted articles that I've later found to be false, and I've made a point of at the very least taking them down or in some cases actively promoting a correction.  It does happen.

I don't pretend to be an expert on infographics or a student of their history. My information here is drawn purely from my own experience. Old news infographics always or at least generally included a source for the data. Facebook infographics very rarely do. This isn't a terrible problem in itself. The sources are much more readily findable using search engines than they may have been in the past. So while providing a source might be a good idea it isn't absolutely necessary.

If I had my way, infographics would simply vanish because the number of deceptive, ill-researched, ill-supported, or just plain false infographics vastly outnumbers the useful ones, but since that is highly unlikely I would like to provide a set of guidelines that I hope will become best practises. If you feel you must post an infographic to your Facebook page or other social media outlet consider the following:

Lie down and take a nap, or have a cup of coffee. See if the feeling passes. Seriously. Do you NEED to disseminate this information? Are you preaching to the choir or are you actually informing anyone? Sometimes if we let our passions cool, posting that witty picture of the Pope throwing a hand grenade at a kitten while carrying a sign promoting GMOs and singing the praises of Hugo Chavez seems like less of a good idea. If you still think it's worthwhile, continue.

Before posting, make sure that if your infographic includes statistical data, factual claims, or scientific conclusions, (as most do) that these are borne out by actual facts. Is what the infographic claims correct? If not, STOP NOW. The majority of infographics I've seen on my own Facebook page are nonsense. Just for the record, the Vatican is not a major shareholder in arms manufacturer Baretta; Fluoride in drinking water does not cause brain cancer; Barack Obama is not a secret Muslim; homeopathic "remedies" are in fact sugar water; and Stephen Harper is not a shape-shifting reptilian alien. (I admit, I'm not 100% on the last one.)  Remember:  you are responsible for what you post.  If you post something that is misleading or false, it may well be the case that you did so inadvertently or unintentionally.  In fact, I assume that you earnestly believed what you were sticking your name on for everyone to see.  But if you repost, you become a party to the lie, and it's an easy trap to fall into.

If there is research available, ask yourself, "how would I respond if I were asked to back up these claims?" If you have a solid reputable source for the data, consider presenting that as backup for your infographic. It can only make it more convincing. There are still people out there who would rather read an article than an infographic.  Not many, maybe, but some.

If you are convinced, based on research, and not merely your passionate belief, that the information is in fact correct, ask yourself, "is the research supporting the claims made in the infographic readily findable by a slightly more intelligent than average Facebook user?" If so, go ahead and post as is. People who have doubts will be able to corroborate the infographic easily. Otherwise, it is best to at least have your backup ready to hand. On the other hand, if the research is available, why not just point people to it? Does the clever picture really add anything?

Consider whether the information presented is done so fairly. Does it present a controversy as settled when in fact there is significant debate among reputable experts? Does it misuse or cherry pick data to paint an overly rosy or overly dismal picture? Does the creator (assuming it isn't you) have an agenda or an axe to grind? These are all things that you might want to consider before posting. If the answer is "yes" to any of these, you should consider just saying "no."

Excursus:  If your infographic contains a typographical error, as an unusually high number seem to do, understand that for those of us who are members of the International League of Pedants, this is sufficient to dismiss the idea presented out of hand without further comment.  Typographical errors, while understandable, still make you look like a half-wit, especially when you can't go back and correct them.  I could keep going into a tangent on advertising with typos in it, but this is sufficiently ranty as it is.

Lastly, do you fully endorse the claims of the infographic? If you don't, consider finding another or just speaking your own mind. At the very least, include a caveat, because otherwise readers will take you at face value; they will assume that the position represented is yours. If you put yourself out this way, don't complain when your friends attribute the opinions to you.

I'm not opposed to infographics as such. I think they can be useful. But like any other means of disseminating information, they have to be handled carefully, because they run the risk of doing real damage to a public space that we all share.


  1. If you find a typo in my blog posts, please, for the love of all that is sacred, let me know so I don't look like a half-wit and get kicked out of the League.

  2. For the record, I originally misspelled "League."