The Internet, Information, and Our Responsibility

by Ginger on February 16, 2011

in Blogging & Social Media

Here’s the thing about the Internet:

There are no guarantees that what you’re reading is accurate. Anyone with a computer and Internet access can put info out there–we write blogs, add to Wikipedia, put our reviews on Amazon, start businesses, call ourselves experts, link to information we haven’t verified or that is no longer accurate. In big ways and small ways we are creating the information network, and in big ways and small ways we are not always creating accurate information.

This week alone, I have seen numerous *new* blog posts that had blatantly incorrect information. Blatantly. And yet, many (most?) readers were unaware of some of those errors and so as they commented, retweeted, linked, and liked those posts, the incorrect information continued to flow out into this web of our own making.

Have I fallen into this? Of course I have, I’m human. I’m not putting myself above this problem. And I know that the lines between opinion and fact seem to get very fuzzy in the minds and fingers of a lot of people on the web. But as our information network changes into this “user created” content format, the stakes are getting higher.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I see how the world of knowledge gathering is changing. Traditional publishing is being influenced, journalism is being influenced, education is being influenced, corporate initiatives are being influenced, government policy is being influenced by information that flows through the Internet–the information we are creating.

There is a responsibility on both creators and consumers in this new world order to think critically, to verify anything you are claiming as fact, to use a skeptical eye when you’re reading, and to try to keep the lines between opinion and fact clear.

If we are creating the information that the world is reading, if we are influencing the knowledge on the Internet–well, don’t we have a responsibility along with that?

Lisa February 17, 2011 at 8:47 am

I have been thinking of this post all morning and then almost forgot to comment when I got to work!

I saw a #toyotafail tweet yesterday that said “‘there are no social media experts’ meme is strong, but can I just point to today’s #toyotafail incident as proof to contrary.” I rolled my eyes when I read it because, for all intents and purposes, the woman that started this whole thing probably could be considered a social media expert, she’s just lacking in the common sense department. I mean, what gives internet expert status anyway? Someone working for a big corporation? Someone with a PR background that has added social media tools to their usual toolbox? A recent marketing grad that studied social media in college? Someone that uses the hell out of Twitter and refers to himself as an expert? It seems like we’ve accepted the latter. I think information online is just moving too fast for us to really define what makes an “expert” anymore, so we settle for self-declarations.

Even if we were able to define “expert” in any case, that doesn’t mean we can stop thinking critically about things we read and hear. It’s very easy to find sources that support an opinion and then just stop there; we can’t take every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s word as gospel just because they are considered an expert or a trustworthy person that cites sources. Example: I stumbled across the state of Alabama’s sex ed site one time and they very clearly stated that condoms do NOT stop the transmission of any STD except HIV. My jaw dropped when I read that because it’s just WRONG. But they cited a source — the sex ed program for Louisiana. Louisiana cites a study done by the NIH, I think (I don’t recall the exact org off the top of my head). However, the scientific community saw those results and thought they sounded sketchy, so the CDC held a summit to discuss those findings and they later published a report addressing the weaknesses of epidemiological studies, and stating that in a controlled lab environment, it is physically impossible for those barriers to pass through a latex barrier. Louisiana saw the NIH report and it fit their intended message, so they just stopped looking and never saw the whole picture regarding that particular study. Then Alabama saw what Louisiana was saying and started spreading that same message. (And please, like telling teenagers condoms don’t stop disease is going to stop them from having sex, it’s only going to stop them from using condoms!) Someone that reads that information and takes it at face value, without doing any further digging and getting the whole picture, could suffer life-long consequences. While I’d hope that everyone would really make every effort to get the whole picture before publishing, we can’t count on that, so we really need be skeptical and thinking critically about everything we read, even when it comes from what appears to be a trustworthy source.

Dacia February 17, 2011 at 10:11 am

Found you at SITS. This is a great post because it’s so true that there is so much info out there on the web. We do need to remember that everything out there is not all FACT.

Elizabeth February 17, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I run into this all the time with family members. They’ll present something as a fact, and I’ll wonder where they found it. Thanks internet…

It can be dangerous if someone isn’t prepared to read something critically. You’re right–that is a huge responsibility.

Kathleen (amoment2think) February 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

When ever I read posts that call out other posts for something, I can’t help but wondering what specifically is being referred too. I am so bad that way… always wanting to be in the “know”. 🙂

Anyway, I totally agree with you. This ‘expert’ syndrome has gone out of control. Particularly in blogging. I totally see blogging as conversation and opinion sharing… not a place to become an ‘expert’. But I know many bloggers think they need to be ‘experts’ in order to get a wide readership. I think we need to remember that blogging is not journalism.

That being said, I do think we bloggers do have a responsibility to check out our sources as best we can. This can be hard- the internet is full of rabbit holes. Which is why I almost always go to the route of ‘look at this interesting thing I found… here’s what it got me thinking about…. what do you think?” Nothing is really fact.

Kate February 17, 2011 at 9:20 pm

This post is perfect. I so often have friends/family/aquaintances quote bogus stories and then when you ask them where they read it – they say “on the internet” likes it the best authority out there. The twisted part of me wants to put “bait” – some totally wacky and bullshit story – out there once and see how people spread it… 🙂

LisaDay February 18, 2011 at 6:13 am

Which is why I think real journalism will never be replaced by citizen journalism. Journalists with morals don’t go by hearsay but find the facts.


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