Micah posted a comment on my last entry:
I find that last sentence somewhat puzzling, given what led up to it… in 1980 there was no interwebs, and we were stuck with word-of-mouth rumors and what “they say.” It’s *because* of the internet that we can easily fact-check, with the help of sites like snopes.com, and open ourselves to dissenting views on almost everything. Of course, that also means there’s no shortage of wackos with axes to grind and time to burn… like bloggers, right? Still, I think the best thing about the internet is not being limited to one’s own familiar circle in which everyone agrees with each other about anything… the truth is out there, for any subject, if anyone really wants to find out.
I’m less sanguine. It’s true that the internet makes it much easier to check facts and to find differing points of view. So “the truth is out there, if anyone really wants to find out.”
But the internet also offers more truths than anybody can digest, and it takes considerable sophistication to figure out the difference between a reliable source and an unreliable one. If you are outside your own area of expertise, it’s easy to get taken in. So many confident voices, armed with facts and exclamation points!
Very few people can be bothered to do fact checking or to compare diverse points of view. They pass on what reinforces their worldview, and they don’t seek out contrary opinions. More likely, if they seek at all, it’s for confirmation that they are right. If you look for confirmation, you can find it. Seeking truth is a harder discipline.
The internet lacks editors. Most people don’t think about the role editors play, but as somebody who has worked most of his life in “old media,” I’m intensely aware of their importance. Editors decided what stories mattered, which authors were reliable, and who needed to be consulted as news sources.
The economics of old-media publishing pushed those editors toward a centrist, mainsteam point of view. Cranks were free to publish, but it was hard for cranks to get a large enough audience to sustain (expensive) publications. If a magazine or newspaper survived, it had to appeal to a wide readership. A reputation for eccentricity or unreliability would cut off that readership.
The result? Most people only got information from mainstream sources. Yes, that was limiting. It limited contrary points of view. It also limited cranks and conspiracy theories and junk information. A bogus story had a hard time going viral.
In the era of almost free web publishing, cranks survive. Everybody survives. There are a million niches and no mainstream (except, mainly, in “old media” publications that have joined the internet). And so, you can find the truth if you go looking for it. But lazier people–about 99% of the whole–would do better having an editor do some filtering for them.
Will some sort of editing evolve, just because people recognize that they are overwhelmed by the volume of information? I don’t know. In the meantime, I think we need to be more careful than ever about what we believe.