I’m a sucker for a good science experiment that I can share with my kids.
My wife knows this. So as soon as she reads cool science news on Twitter, she shares it with me.
The problem is, I’m also easy prey for bogus social media posts that show these experiments in action.
Yes, I should know better. But when really smart people fall victim to the same hoax, it kind of lessens the sting.
Surrounded by our kids last Tuesday morning, my wife shared with us a tweet about the NASA Broom Challenge. After a lengthy search for a broom (“where’s the [expletive] broom you guys?”), she returned to demonstrate the experiment.
We were all amazed of course.
Not to be outdone, I went to the back porch with a broom to shoot my own #NASABroomChallenge video. After a few edits, my masterpiece was ready to post.
The Facebook post was up in seconds, already receiving likes and comments. I was about to post a pithy tweet with my video when—low and behold—a dear friend texted me to say, “You know this is all b***s***, right?”
I wasn’t alone.
Sports stars and other celebrities all got in on the “Broom Challenge” and shared their pictures and videos on social media.
Even some of our friends in the news industry fell victim to the same pseudoscience claim, posting their own shots of brooms delicately balanced on the newsroom floors.
My good friend, WFMJ’s Danielle Cotterman, got caught up in the hype and posted a picture of her broom to Twitter. I replied, of course, with “It's true! @mbexoxo (my wife’s Twitter handle) did this today. Impressive!”
Those same news outlets quickly realized their mistake (much faster than me) how dumb we all were, and turned the story on its head. WFMJ went to YSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy to get the real science scoop behind the hoax.
According to Dr. Snjezana “Snow” Balaz, you can do this all day, every day, all year long. “It’s physics. It’s science. It’s simply a balancing act,” Balaz told WFMJ. “The broom has a center of gravity directly above the edge it wants to tip over. So when it’s lined up like this, it stands in balance.”
NASA posted a response to Twitter the next day. Just like Dr. Balaz, astronaut Alvin Drew and scientist Sarah Noble showed in a video that basic physics works every day of the year, not just February 10.
Okay, that all makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is that we’re still falling for this stuff on social media.
Shouldn’t we know better by now?
Maybe we’re still so easily duped by these claims because they’re cool and—especially in the case of the broom challenge—they’re relatively harmless. But give us some completely bogus information with “NASA says” or “scientific test” and many of us will believe without question.
The fact is, even though this prank was mostly harmless, the next one might not be.
Fact checking is still a necessary skill for all of us who get at least some of our news via social media. Hopefully I’ll remember that before getting “swept up” in the next viral social media craze.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor of communication studies the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers on social media and society.