Ever play the kids’ game “Telephone”? You whisper something in someone’s ear, they do their best to repeat your words into someone else’s ear, and so forth. The last person states aloud what they heard. The fun is seeing how the signal-to-noise ratio degraded the original message.
We live in a digital age where it’s possible to share perfectly reproduced cut-and-pasted copies of items on social media. However, when humans are involved, the message still ends up degraded.
The recent reporting of high-profile suicides provides an important example. In the aftermath of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths, my Facebook feed was loaded with personal observations and posts of suicide hotlines. And then came the summarizing meme:
Since 1999, U.S. suicides have gone up 30%.
That’s a statistic that packs an emotional wallop – which is kind of the point of memes. Memes are to the information highway what billboards are to the interstate freeway. Something quick, to leave an impression. And that meme gave me this impression:
But then I thought, that’s an awful steep rise. And it came from social media.
It wouldn’t be the first time people posted something on social media that wasn’t quite accurate.
So I did a quick Internet search. And, sure enough, you can find headlines in respectable publications like The Guardian and the L.A. Times with the 30% figure. These, and other publications, were reporting on the recently released CDC study that generated the number.
The Internet was sure efficient in spreading this data. And that graph, generated in my gut by a meme based on this information, was distressing. It would imply that society is melting down or upheaving or something. Right?
However, none of the reports nor the original CDC study had a graph illustrating the specifics of the rise.
So I did a quick Internet search. This time I was looking for historical trends of suicide rates in the United States. Wikipedia is a pretty good resource for such things. An article, “Epidemiology of suicide,” contains this graph:
See that purple line with the Xs in the middle of the pack? That’s us, the U.S. There are two things to notice here. First, the United States, happily, is not at the upper extremes of other countries. Second, the rate has been relatively flat and stable between 1960 and 2007. The rate tends to slowly drift between 10 and 13 suicides per 100,000 people. In fact, from 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate in the US has been the lowest ever in the past 50 years.
This graph takes us to 2007. Did things get catastrophically worse since then? After all, The New York Times has published headlines like “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in the U.S.” in 2013 and “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” in 2016. Neither story had a graphic to justify the words “rise sharply” and “surges.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides the data since 2007:
Just as the previous 45 years, the rate has been flat-ish and trending slowly. There is nothing about the graph that suggests “sharp” or “surges.”
The rate today is about 13 per 100,000. True, this is the highest since the late 70s and, true, this represents a 30% rise since the 10 per 100,000 number of 1999. (Subtract 10 from 13 to get 3 and 3 is 30% of 10.)
Nevertheless, neither graph of actual data supports the emotional graph I pictured from the stories. The numbers reported are accurate. The contextual descriptions are not.
And that’s irritating.
We already live in a world in which media serves us demoralizing and upsetting news with regularity. There’s no need to amp it up. That only increases stress levels and exhausts us for the real work that needs to be done.
One Internet gives us clear information. The other Internet takes it away.