The tangled web woven on the internet

The internet is a wonderful thing, right?

Dreams Beyond the NowAndrea suggested a recipe for me to make last night – stir fry chicken that her Pampered Chef consultant made at her show two weeks ago – but she didn’t actually have the recipe on hand. I cooked because I took Dylan and Drew to a friend’s party and she went to Incrementum III, a charity art auction benefiting alley’s house.

Shameless plug unrelated to the title: her latest piece “Dreams Beyond the Now” to the right is available. Too bad the kinetic elements (the small dandelions float above the canvas) don’t show up in this pic.

Anyway, as she didn’t have the recipe, a quick search found it here.

I’ve used the internet so many times to find instructions on how to troubleshoot and repair our Akai flatscreen, LG Tromm washer (that took a few iterations…the “service manual” said for my problem to take it to the shop!), our Kenmore refrigerator, replacing an iPhone battery (yes, it can be done – go to ifixit.com), and a plethora of computer problems, to name just a few. The value is tremendous.

On the flipside of that information coin, Dylan asked me about something he saw flying around on taxes and Obama…I told him he hadn’t given me enough information to answer the question, or even try to research the answer, but it was likely to be untrue, whatever it was.

That’s where the internet is not a wonderful thing, right?

I heard someone say that “we’re working against the rapid proliferation of ignorance.” How true! The ideal of the sum total of human knowledge being virtually instantly available to everyone is sadly diluted – polluted? – by the simple fact that anyone can generate content and that content is largely suspect.

I saw a book referenced by a Facebook friend (whom I’ve never met – another one of those internet phenomena) and got curious at the title: the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture.

cult of amateurPublished in 2007 by Andrew Keen, cult is a ranting polemic against Web 2.0 and the sad fact that there is no journalistic integrity anymore in an arena where anyone can say anything virtually without consequence. Now, Keen comes off as a self-righteous elitist throughout the book, pretty much casting everyone as stupid, but he made some pretty good points with respect to the monstrous amount of non-vetted materials released every day.

His argument against Wikipedia has some merit, particularly in light of problems actual people have with correcting entries about their own works or personal profiles. A cousin of mine is a university professor in Florida and he told me that he despises Wikipedia because it encourages laziness and plagiarism and  his students know “any use of Wikipedia results in a lower grade”. I argued that “culture is the root cause of that academic laziness you rightly despise. So the educators need to continue to reinforce that Wikipedia is a resource…not a source.” Maybe Keen was on to something with that culture bit.

I see Wikipedia as a wonderful starting point. I offered (my cousin) a few technical subjects picked at random – photon polarization, Laffer curve, geological unit – that were pretty detailed entries with links to external sources. So while wiki can be a great resource, it can also occasionally be a good source. I start with google, but almost always follow the wiki link first, keeping in mind the very nature of Wikipedia.

Google’s search returns are clearly biased by money. Blogs are cited as fact. Even legitimate news entities are now sourcing content from …amateurs. Yes, Keen uses that word as a pejorative, slur, curse…well, he does view the amateur intrusion into the internet as a curse.

And Keen wrote the book BFB – before Facebook exploded onto the web. I have so many other things to read, but I might one day want see what he has to say about Facebook and Twitter. Nah. I can guess.

So this wonderful thing that can be such a great source of information is largely dominated by content we have no way of knowing is factual, opinion, or deliberate deception. That’s the worrisome part. Fact-checking is not always easy, but it is even harder when one doesn’t know if the “facts” are indeed facts. Ignorance is a pervasive thing, but duplicitous content is far too easy with the internet’s anonymity.

Internet_dogThe New Yorker‘s Peter Stein drew a now famous cartoon in 1993: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Or a 45 year old man posing as a teen girl for either gaming, or less savory, reasons. Or a seemingly impartial bystander who is actually a paid content generator for a major corporate or political interest. Nobody knows if you’re a dog and nobody knows whether an image, video or story haven’t been altered.

Keen cites an incident from 2006 in which veteran Reuters photographer Adna Hajj was found to have manipulated photos taken of the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Unlike certain highly watched “news” channels today that tacitly endorse such efforts (opinion, folks, opinion…but one sadly supported continually by inconvenient facts), Reuters reacted dramatically to stop the damage to its credibility. All of Hajj’s photos, all 920 of them, were removed from the Reuters site and a senior editor was also fired. Such integrity seems to be rare. People dismissed from networks for violations of conduct or ethics are snapped up by others all too quickly. No, I’m not linking references to that statement because there really are too many that you can find for yourself.

Of course, the internet isn’t the only rampant source of false information. Once trustworthy, modern television news networks routinely rely on deceptive editing and tabloidish headlines – by deliberate design in the case of the most watched and by collateral damage for those just trying to catch up in ratings. Unlike the Internet amateurs Keen rails against, these folks are professionals at generating amateurish content. And of course, they all have web sites through which they propagate their misinformation, so it’s back to that tangled web. Not amateur blogs these, but professional, face of the network, websites. The talking heads on television and the internet authors say what they want their audiences to hear, truth be damned. And the bloggers run with it as is or make up their own.

It’s really bad when a study finds that people who didn’t watch or listen to any news were more informed about international and domestic issues than people who did watch a certain “news” channel.

Still, there are occasional refreshing pockets of reason on television (think The Daily Show…satire is piercingly astute sometimes). In 2008, Zbigniew Brzezinski told MSNBC host and former Florida congressman, Joe Scarborough

“You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on [at the 2000 Camp David summit] that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.”

I like that. Filing “stunningly superficial knowledge” away for the future…

Now, the wonderful tool that I lauded at the start of this piece is still there and available for people to use if they question what they see in those viral Facebook and email memes. But people seem to have a want to believe what they get fed. It’s easier than doing the work to check. And quite often, it really is a lot of work. Simple ignorance takes seconds to debunk, but clever deceptions (e.g., Debunking the “Petition Project”) require much sifting and deep drilling.

How? Well, when I decide try to pull the thread on a story, I go to the traditional search resources and look for convergence – if only one “news” channel is reporting a particular spin while pretty much everyone else is reporting it differently but generally the same (convergence) … well, question the “news” channel. But I also keep pulling that thread and questioning the convergence.

When a friend forwarded a disturbingly ignorant meme of an incident in Dearborn Michigan a couple of years ago (“mainstream media…blah, blah… hasn’t guts…Look at all these people reporting…”), I looked for that convergence:

  • First, the fabrications all – and I do mean all – came from blogs. Strike one.
  • The lone inflammatory take was from a particular “news” channel claiming fairness and no bias
  • All of the other headlines and articles converged… BUT….
  • …they were also all using the same AP feed thought the headlines were slightly different (that supported the deliberately intending to spin and misinform theory of that “news” channel)
  • Finally, I traced the original story to a small circulation local newspaper that a Detroit paper picked up and ran without doing its own investigation

Yes, it is easier to wear blinders. Skepticism can be a burden. But it is necessary. I rely on watchdog organizations to keep an eye on the deceivers, but I also watch for bias within those debunkers. Yes, that one channel is a world class expert in spin, but sometimes the observations are pretty nitpicking.

Trust what you read/see only so far. The internet isn’t going away. The web is only going to get more tangled. Just be aware of the traps. My thermodynamics professor at OU, Dr. Will Sutton (now at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga) , hammered this mantra into our heads:

Check your sources, check your sources, check your sources!

Now, go check up on me!

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