Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Media: Internet Credibility

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I suppose I'll get myself in trouble with this post. It always happens when I either point out how people blindly accept what they hear in the media as true (an extreme case was described here) or try to account for it in my actions. If there's one thing people don't want to hear, it's that they might need to think more about the credibility of information entering their brain.

I've gotten especially frustrated with various Internet discussion boards of late, from Google groups (a modern interface for what we used to call USENET newsgroups) to specialty websites like to closed-to-the-general-public distribution lists on Yahoo! groups. Despite the different potential participation, from anyone in the world to paying subscribers to hand-picked members, the same effect occurs--reliable sources are ignored in favor of those that speak loudest.

Specialty hobby sites are an especially interesting case because, by necessity, there are professionals on these sites that have to post using a pseudonym to avoid endangering their jobs. Oftentimes, these people are mid-level executives that have real, reliable information on both past and future events. A friend and I that both regularly read Trainorders recently discussed how some really valuable posts by people we knew to be high in management at major railroads had been largely ignored as posters believed to be college students posted contrary information and kept posting it with such confidence that any casual reading of a thread would conclude that the college student's version of history was correct.

The issue was acute because my friend at the time was trying to get the word out about what had actually gone on with the cancellation of a major excursion. People in the organization that he belonged to were having to spend a lot of time posting to various sites with their side of the story. In this case, I suspect their efforts were successful with those who were actually reading the threads in question. However, two days later, a new thread was created by someone who clearly hadn't bothered to read any of the previous threads, as often happens on the Internet, and the whole process started over again.

Back some months ago, a poster asked a question that I knew the answer to, having been an eye-witness to the event. Someone had already posted the correct answer, so I simply e-mailed him to say that I knew that poster was correct since I had actually been there. Nobody had posted contradictory information on the thread. The response I got back was, "I'm going to put two versions on my web site since I found another story on a web site." I found out what web site, and the webmaster was someone who was five years old when the event occurred and had apparently gotten the information from a newsgroup archive from the era. To the member of Generation Y that I was corresponding with, a random web posting was considered equivalent information to someone they had actually communicated with that had been an eyewitness.

I don't know how many times I've asked a member of Generation Y whether they needed information on something and heard "no, I found it on the Internet" and it turned out to be incorrect information that didn't even match what was on the Internet's own Wikipedia, much less more reliable non-Internet sources. In some cases, these were facts with political consequences, like economic figures, that the person was going to use in a letter to their political representative or a newspaper (er, more likely a comment on a newspaper web site). It's not hard to see the danger of this mentality. Start a loud enough campaign and post confidently to a variety of Internet forums, and one's falsified version of facts will suddenly start being spread and viewed as reliable information.

The Internet was supposed to be the ultimate democratic enterprise in which anyone could express ideas and the best ideas would rise to dominate, no matter where they came from. Instead, much as in a free, unregulated economy the best marketing actually wins out over the most useful products, what seems to happen on the Internet is that those ideas that are promoted most aggressively win out. This is especially disturbing when the matter at hand is not one of opinion or philosophy, but of historical fact. Everyone, not just Generation Y, needs to better learn how to evaluate the accuracy of information they find on the Internet.

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