As early as 1596, the verb to parrot has been used to describe the behavior of people who mechanically repeat what others have said. The endless stream of news media coverage of significant (and insignificant) world events gives rise to plenty of fodder for lesser media outlets and social media influencers to parrot all day long.
2020 will long be remembered as the year when the news media and social media succumbed completely to the parrot effect in grand fashion.
At its core, the parrot effect is not a bad thing. When the information is good, the parrot effect can mean the rapid dissemination of good information to the population. This can lead to swift action by millions or even billions of people.
Why the parrot effect can be dangerous.
However, misinformation and fear-mongering have negative repercussions that can take many times longer to erase than the original information took to disburse. The most recent example that has held the attention of media outlets and meme-makers alike is the worldwide shortage of toilet paper.
Imagine, if you will, a normal Saturday at the super box mart. A husband and wife team who manage a small chain of independent hotels purchases two cartloads of toilet paper to service all their rooms. Another husband and wife combination who have been watching the 24-hour news cycle for the last 48 hours straight see a typical quarterly purchase happening and react in fear. They convince themselves that someone knows something they don’t know so they too purchase two cartloads of toilet tissue. Others see the behavior who have also been wrapped in the news cycle. They also purchase their two cartloads of toilet paper.
What started as a regular purchase — when snapped up by the news media — turns into a worldwide shortage in only a few short days. The shortage happens because the media tells us a shortage is happening.
When the parrot effect runs rampant, runs on household goods and food are the inevitable outcome. In these types of scenarios, if people acted rationally, the shortages would not occur.
How do we stop it?
Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen — Dr. A according to his followers — uses a phrase: Stop. Challenge. Choose.
There’s a space between when something happens and how you react to that. When we give in to impulses, that period of time is very short. However, if we can stop ourselves from reacting impulsively, we can avoid succumbing to the parrot effect.
The second couple from the example above could easily have asked the first couple why they were purchasing so much toilet paper.
“Oh, but I’d never do that. That’s none of my business.” You might say. However, by parroting the behavior, you contribute to the problem.
This is perhaps the hardest step. Now you’re in the space between experiencing something and reacting to it. It’s an opportunity to challenge the way you’re thinking about something.
“Should I forward that article about the miracle cure?”
“Should I send a text message to my friend telling her she just has to check this out?”
“Should I invest time in something clearly designed to make me want to forward it along?”
“Is this thing I’m seeing too sensational?”
It takes time to learn how not to become a part of the problem. Social media, in particular, has made it tremendously difficult to stem the tide of misinformation. We want to put the onus on social media companies to stop the flow, but we can be a big part of the solution. Right now, far too many are part of the problem.
Once you’ve challenged your thoughts, you get to choose your response.
“Do I forward that article along to a friend or do I do my part to stop it in its tracks?”
It’s your choice.
How helpful would it be if we had reliable sources to which we could turn to vet things as they hit our social media news feeds? Even reputable news outlets have been guilty of spreading misinformation. The good ones admit they made a mistake and do what they can to correct their error. The bad ones play it off as though they never participated in misinforming their readers/viewers.
Don’t be a parrot
There are some obvious times when being a parrot is a good thing. If there’s a wildfire raging in your area, it’s good to make sure your neighbors are informed. Then, you can all get to safety together. Simply re-posting and forwarding every sensational thing only leads to hysteria like what we’re experiencing in 2020.
Thanks for reading!