Sunday, September 12, 2010

Online Info Requires Critical Analysis

One of the truly wonderful aspects of the Internet is the fact that we can find information quickly about almost any topic. At light speed from almost any location, a pub or library, we can find answers to questions of critical or trivial importance. Google has become a household word. Each day millions of us search for information and in seconds we get answers to our queries which once would have taken hours or even days to retrieve. Wikipedia has replaced the iconic Britannica or World Book as the place to go when in doubt.

News reporting, too, has undergone exponential change in the speed with which it delivers facts and opinions. There is no question that we have more news and information. There is no question that we have it faster and in a more convenient form. There are, however, big questions about the veracity of that information.

Earlier this month Mike Wise, a Washington Post reporter, posted a fake report on his Twitter account to demonstrate how quickly such a report would be picked up by online news aggregators and published without any verification of its content. The post on his Twitter feed, @MikeWiseguy, was a reference to the length of the suspension handed down to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as a penalty for an offseason Georgia nightclub indiscretion. Even though it had not yet been determined by the NFL, within minutes his tweet was picked up as “fact” by several respected news organizations. The experiment, while calling attention to the serious inadequacies of online information, also resulted in Wise’s suspension by his employer. The Post saw the stunt as calling the newspaper’s credibility into question.

Talk to any teacher and they will share with you the challenge they face getting kids to use the Internet with a critical and skeptical mindset. The democratic approach of information collection and analysis pioneered by Wikipedia is fraught with issues of accuracy. Inaccurate information is not new. For sure all printed material is not factual, but the filter of the time it takes to produce and distribute “hard copy” does make it much different from contemporary digital media.

Wise’s experiment demonstrated that information, regardless of its accuracy, can reach a world wide audience in minutes. Opinion can easily morph into fact. Outrageous claims about a President’s birth certificate or NASA’s fake moon landing become credible to some because they are repeated.

Perhaps the next iteration of online news reporting and information collection will incorporate more checks and balances to assure that facts are facts and opinions are labeled as such. Even if this happens, new media and new online research techniques require our ability to critically question what we read, hear and see on the Internet.

Perhaps the 1993 The New Yorker said it best with the publication of the now famous cartoon depicting a conversation between two dogs in front of a PC. The caption read “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Dog.”

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