The Internet and Truth

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.

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6 Responses to “The Internet and Truth”

  1. Silas Says:

    I’m not sure I have the same confidence in editors and journalists as you. I use the example of cycling journalism. Twitter has revolutionised the coverage of cycling (and other things too). It allows riders to disseminate their thoughts and opinions in between stages at their own pace, rather than exhaustedly into a microphone immediately after a race to the “old media”. More often than not, this reveals the ways in which journalists “spin” a story, either through selective quotations, or through inaccuracies. I’m not proposing that the “old media” is not important, but surely an athlete’s views are better expressed through their twitter postings than through a journalist’s interpretation of a 10 second incoherent interview?

    • timstafford Says:

      There are lots of ways in which new media is superior. But don’t be naive. In your example, athletes may spin a story as readily as journalists, and perhaps more readily.
      Sports isn’t really the best example, though, because it’s not about truth so much as entertainment. If for example you thought you could get a better idea of what is going on in health care reform by reading Twitters from the congressmen writing the legislation, I think you would be wrong.

  2. chasta Says:

    WIkipedia is a great example of both sides of this argument.

  3. Silas Says:

    I wasnt being naive; it is obvious that twitter is limited, and obvious that twitterers will give their own spin to their posts. What I am arguing, is that the “old media” are not the shining knights of journalistic and editorialistic integrity you proclaim them to be. Perhaps a better example than my last: watch FOX news for 10 minutes (for conservatives, the example might be to watch NBC news for 10 minutes). Even my beloved NYT have had their troubles with journalistic delinquincy (Jayson Blair).
    You might argue that there are bad eggs and good eggs. However, this means that getting news from the “old media” requires its own form of discernment. FOX news is the most watched news station in the US. To me this says Americans have problems discerning where to get their news from, regardless of media.
    (I also am not sure that I agree with your insinuation that sports journalists are not obligated to portray the truth, but thats another matter)

  4. Jeff Says:

    Hi everyone, I assume there’s room here at the kitchen table for another guest.
    I agree that we have to be “more careful than ever about what we believe,” but I apply that equally to the internet writers and to the editors and newsroom journalists (who are preponderantly liberal and Democrat according to studies I’ve seen). I’m not as sanguine as Tim is about the old media seeking truth.
    Postmodernism has taught us that no one can escape his or her own world view. Dan Rather’s Folly showed us that “old media” are practicing advocacy journalism just as the “new media” are.
    I think we’re actually better off with advocacy journalism. Everyone admits that they have a point of view and no one can hide behind the chimera of objectivity.
    As far as finding truth on the internet, more truth can be found, and that is worth a lot more than filtered, corporate, sponsored truth, IMHO. Sources are now widely available (e.g., Iranian Election Protest) that previously only reporters with expense accounts (and their own world view) could afford to find.
    Anyway, we’re not going back to Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, and the NYT. I think that’s a good thing.

  5. Yolanda Miller Says:

    i think what makes me most cautious about the “new media” and more inclined to lean towards tim’s view (although i COMPLETELY agree w/silas’ example of jayson blair) is the viral nature of it. information is dispersed so much more quickly and received with so much more readiness by so many more people, once misinformation gets out, it’s very difficult to undo the damage. snopes.com is a perfect example. i cringe everytime i get a forward in my inbox. then i dutifully trudge over to snopes.com and, inevitably, 9 times out of 10, trudge back over to my inbox, hit “reply” with a link to the snopes.com page declaring the stupid forward to be completely false. if the information on the internet is so accurate, then why the HECK don’t more people check their facts before sending it to my inbox???!?!?! *deep breath* sorry, got a little personal there. ha ha. 🙂

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