One of the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet in a time of crisis is its default promotion of free speech. Unless the ability to post anything that is written online without any checks (including fact checks) and balances is coded away, then anybody with access to the Internet can post anything they want online. Most of the time, it is just mundane everyday life drivel, or very special interest information that most people do not read. But in the case of a national or global news event or crisis, the speed and truth of information is vital.
In times of crisis or uncertainty, misinformation can be devastating. Rumors are especially rampant on the ground during wars, when everything is up in the air. Especially in the Arab Spring uprisings, where it is hard to tell who is a rebel, who is a thug, and who is a regime loyalist, rumors about who did what atrocity can often lead to unnecessary death and violence if they are not verified. In these situations, people depend on blogs and Twitter feeds to get the correct information, hoping that the person writing them is doing their homework, but often times, they are amateur bloggers just doing their best to help out.
In his book, Code 2.0, Lessig notes:
At their best, blogs are instances of amateur journalism – where “amateur,” again, means not second rate or inferior, but one who does what he does for the love of the work, and not the money. These journalists white about the world – some from a political perspective, some from the point of view of a particular interest. But they triangulate across a range of other writers to produce an argument, or a report, that adds something new.
You hear “just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s true” all the time. This mindset comes from the belief that since most content on the Internet does not go through an editor, and may not be fact checked, that there is a good chance it is not true. It is definitely something to keep in mind when reading random blogs or websites that are not associated with a big name publisher. A Yahoo! News article is more likely to be fact checked than your next door neighbor’s neighborhood gossip blog. There are obviously some examples where Internet crowd-sourcing leads (most of the time) to the truth, like Wikipedia, but even Wikipedia is subject to tampering and rumors.
This month, another fraud “memoir” was added to a disturbingly long list of similar non-fiction books found to be, well, fiction. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson was published by a respected and time honored publishing company (Penguin), hailed on highly respected news and talk shows for years before it was found to be untrue. Surely these traditional, slower, “analog” media sources take the time to fact check, right?
But they don’t! Even after a string of fraud “memoirs” publishing companies, and Oprah have not learned their lesson. Print seems to be just a susceptible to lies and rumors at the Internet. And it can have serious consequences. The charity that Mortenson set up is now coming into question, and the real fear is that if it is found to be a fraud that people will lose faith in charities and stop giving money to worthy causes that might actually further democracy and equality, like building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I have to ask, have these type of casual, non-fact checking standards of publishing been in existence since before the digital age, or has the speed of the Internet age actually changed the norms or “code” of analog publishing? If the speed of publishing on the Internet has indeed effected “traditional” publishing, what does that mean in turn for the publishing industry’s credibility as compared to the Internet? Are they now equals? If these lower standards have always been around, but are only now being discovered, can we credit the age of the Internet for helping expose these frauds, since people are now trained to be more skeptical about what they read, and therefore are more likely to do their own research instead of just trusting what made its way to print?
In times of crisis, the freedom to publish information as soon as it comes in with out going through an editor or publisher is key, but with that freedom comes the cost of reliability. Some news outlets, bloggers, and Twitter feeds are reliable and some are not, and in times of crisis, even the best can make mistakes. Code can be created to protect a lot of things on the Internet, but instant fact-checking is just not one of them. If the information is new enough, there will be nothing to fact check against, and by the time there is the information, it may be too late to take action. Unfortunately, both time and effort are still a factor in checking facts – until there is a code for that, people need to be skeptical about what they read, both online and off.