The internet has created a vast pool of information on practically every conceivable subject which is easily accessible and referable. No longer do we have to puzzle over who played Father Merrin in the Exorcist or who won the 1962 soccer world cup, there are websites which will tell us at the click of a button. However, we may need to change how we treat that information when we receive it.
In the past, in was relatively hard to get into a position to publish any form of information to the masses, so anything that you read had at least a reasonable chance of being true, barring the biases of the reporter. However, as this post demonstrates, it’s now very easy to present information to the world giving us generally far too much to process and removing the sort of peer review that you would get from published books in the past.
Tim Burners-Lee has recognised that this could be an issue and believes that we need a mechanism for rating the reliability of pages, but this relies on having a reasonably authoritive source to make those judgements and keep them up to date. To some extent peer-review can help here, but correct information from one source can easily be overwhelmed by more interesting sounding false information from another.
The problem gets worse when it’s not just people like me skimming pages and not researching them properly, it’s the mainstream media. Major newspapers in the UK have reported that Ronnie Hazlehurst wrote the song ‘Reach‘ by S-Club 7 before he died, a ‘fact’ cribbed from Wikipedia but not actually true. More recently, a David Anderson, a reporter for the Daily Mirror, reported from Nicosia that fans of the local football team “are known as the ‘Zany Ones’ and wear hats made from shoes.“, another Wikipedia gem which five minutes of research on the ground would have revealed as false.
Now, neither of these pieces of information are particularly noteworthy in themselves, but when you continually read the same pieces of misinformation, such as the ones I mentioned yesterday for example, presented both on the internet and in the mainstream media, then it gets to be a problem. We can no longer rely that any facts presented to us have been sensibly researched as we might have done in the past.
That doesn’t mean that we all need to become authorities on everything, just that we need to be wary of information presented to us and think about how likely it is to be true. Do some background research of your own, visit sites like snopes.com and see if they mention the fact you are interested in (but don’t necessarily assume that they are right either!). Ask someone who knows about the subject if you can find someone, but don’t just blindly accept things as true, no matter what the source (including me!).
Be a sceptical consumer of information and you stand a better chance of working out what’s actually going on, and you might actually learn something new as well.