If there’s one thing feminists of the Internet are supposed to hate, it’s people (usually men) commenting on tweets or blog posts with the starting word, “Actually…” It’s supposed to unite us; we’re all supposed to agree that “actually” is the most obnoxious word in existence. But here’s the problem: I’m a closet “actually”-er. And when I see people tweet out interesting trivia as “factoids”, I have to work pretty hard to hold that “actually” in. Because ACTUALLY… a factoid is not a little fact.
Gonna go as an "Actually…" for Halloween. A guy who points out the flaws in women's costumes and then gets mad when they don't care.
— Max Dylan Ash (@mynameisntdave) January 28, 2016
Here’s what a factoid really means: “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” In other words, a factoid isn’t true, but everyone thinks it is.
There are more people alive today than dead? Factoid. Napoleon was very short? Factoid. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are married in real life? Little fact. And an awesome little fact at that. It would be a shame if you called it a factoid and then nobody knew it actually happened.
You know what else is a factoid? The statement that “a factoid means a little fact”. Did I just blow your mind?
But I’m not just saying this to kick up a fuss. I get it, I get it; language evolves. If Americans want to say “one in the same”, I can’t stop them. 😡 But when it comes to facts and factoids, there’s something a little more sinister at play.
Media manipulation has been a problem since probably the invention of the printing press, but thanks to the Internet, factoids are spread (and believed) like wildfire. Hatred and anger can be drummed up against individuals, groups and even ethnicities—thanks to a few unresearched and uncontextualised statistics. Donald Trump is particularly guilty of this; his outrageous claims that thousands of Muslims cheered on 9/11, or that murders are most likely to be committed by Black people, have stirred up extremism amongst his followers. That’s because we tend to believe that anything in print is true—which is a pretty dangerous assumption.
The misinterpretation of the word “factoid” seems symptomatic of that; the line between true and said by somebody on the Internet once is so blurred that it hardly still exists.
I’ve written before about how language affects the way we think; it’s pretty important that we have the words in place to form a model of the world. So if we just accept that language has moved on, and a factoid means a little fact now, then we don’t have a word to convey that meaning anymore. Misconception? Myth? None of them quite convey the crucial point: the idea that people believe something untrue purely because it’s been said. And if we lose the word, then the understanding of that concept might actually fall away from our understanding. That’s why we can’t identify as many types of snow as the Inuit. (LOL JK, that’s a factoid too.)
So the less able we are to separate facts from factoids, or even to have a word in our language for the concept that something commonly believed may not be true, the worse we’ll get at critical analysis. The worse we’ll get at questioning things. And the more likely people are to read what we’ve written, turn up their noses, and begin, “Actually….”