Is the Internet a cesspool of folklore and truthiness?

Or The Internet is full of adventure and can we learn to love and live with it?

It takes time to understand the fluency of the Internet. The wool is never pulled over my eyes when it comes to the junk the Internet has to offer. However, how can you blame the Internet for tricking us? Anyone with a connection can post whatever they want to get our attention. In the book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold says that “the web undermines authority (by enabling anybody to publish)” (p. 89). The amount of content waiting for our attention is enormous. Whenever I see dubious posts that talk about folklore or “truthy” on the social media, I do a quick search on Google to see if the content is real or fake.

Sometimes Google search results give me a Snopes.com article. I tend to believe the Snopes website because it has been around busting urban folkore and “truthiness” for over twenty years. If you think I made that up, check out Rob Walker’s profile on the person behind the most well-known website for clearing up the internet’s (dis)information. Because of the amount of information out there these days, “we need Snopes more than ever” (Walker, 2016).

In the Futurama episode, “Attack of the Killer App,” the characters get eyePhones installed in their eye sockets, which the device mimics features found on actual iPhones. Bender, the narcissistic robot, uses his eyePhone for the purpose of getting attention through the device. He posts on the social media site, Twitcher (a parody of Twitter), about his kayaking trip around the world while sitting comfortably at a pizzeria.

img_4902img_4903img_4904

Screenshots and captions from “Attack of the Killer App” from Futurama.

Bender then says, “Can you believe 50,000 idiots swallow that crap?” and he accidentally sends that message to his followers. This example is a great one to showcase that people will believe anything and somehow Bender amassed a following of people who believe he is an authoritative figure. In a sense, do we believe what people say online as true or do we need to step back and question the content we consume?

Working out that skepticism muscle

I think it’s time we start working on our skepticism muscle. I propose using this analogy: work out your skeptical muscle on the internet by critically thinking about the content you consume. You will get better exercising that skepticism muscle every time you get a chance to.

In my case, I research a lot of information and gauge the data by how well the website presents itself and if it is corroborated by other reputable sources. Rheingold says “journalists talk about ‘triangulating’ by checking three different, credible sources” (p. 79). I know whatever’s on the web should be taken with caution and I question everything before I believe it to be true. However, critical thinking should apply not only for the internet, but anything else posted elsewhere, such as the yellow and tabloid journalism peddled at checkout aisles in grocery stores.

During my earliest days using the Internet, I learned quickly how to tell what was true and fake. Rheingold says that “age can be a factor in crap-detection fluency, experience and engagement may be more important” (p. 84) I agree that it takes experience and years of reading online content to gather that kind of heuristic for detecting what is junk and what to believe. “The danger of … credulity is made possible by digital media” says Rheingold, and there is something we can do about it: “make skepticism [our] default” (p. 77).

Rheingold includes Dan Gillmor’s five “Principles of Media Consumption” (pp. 95-96) as a good guide for figuring out how to work that skepticism muscle in order to process information better and not take anything for granted.

  • Be Skeptical
  • Exercise Judgment
  • Open Your Mind
  • Keep Asking Questions
  • Learn Media Techniques

Gillmor says that we need everyone to understand that “we are doing a poor job of ensuring that consumers and producers of media in a digital age are equipped for these tasks [of consuming media appropriately].” Additionally, Gillmor and I agree that in order to build these skills, “this is a job for parents and schools” and unfortunately “a teacher who teaches critical thinking in much of the United States risks being attacked as a dangerous radical.” Luckily, in my educational upbringing, I was told to question and research everything before I decide to accept it.

Can we patch the human?

Lastly, I am fascinated how people could fall for most well-known digital scam: phishing. In my last job I worked with an information security team as a technical writer. One of the security measures the team would test for was phishing and my co-workers were good at hacking the human since most of the computer systems were already hardened with security patches. How easy it it to fall for the everyday phishing email? Very easy. You’d be surprised that despite all of the security efforts made to secure systems so hackers can’t get in, people always were the weakest chain.

It boggles me how anyone can be so trusting to give away passwords!

In essence how can we train ourselves to figure out scams or fake authoritative figures via email? Can we “social engineer-proof” the average person to catch subtle hints everywhere on the Internet to be aware of? I think it is possible to help everyone to detect these types of scams instead of relying on software to filter the scams out of our email.

We need to educate people early on how to detect these kinds of things on the Internet. I would hope that these days, not only parents, educators teach online literacy. That doesn’t mean scaring kids and teens away from the internet, but teach helpful skills in consuming media like using Gillmor’s five principles. Whenever a friend or family member posts a hoax on Facebook, I check it and decide if it’s worthy to explain to them that they posted junk information. I gently prod them by posting a link to Snopes.com, like what Rheingold mentions we do to debunk online rumors (p. 81) because it’s important to stop the junk from misinforming other unfortunate souls.

To me, I liken it to telling people Comic Sans and Papyrus are terrible fonts and you need to use something like Gothic or Perpetua or Cambria. You don’t need to suffer awful junk from the digital world. We can do better.


References

Gillmor, D. (2008, December 26). Principles of a new media literacy. [Web log message]. Retrieved from https://dangillmor.com/2008/12/26/principles-of-a-new-media-literacy/

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA

Verrone, P. (Writer). (2010). Attack of the killer app. [Television series episode]. in Cohen, D. X. (Executive producer). Futurama. New York, NY: Comedy Central.

Walker, R. (2016, October 19). How the truth set Snopes free. Webby Awards. Retrieved from http://webbyawards.com/features/how-the-truth-set-snopes-free/

About Roger Renteria

Professional Life: I am a technical communicator, writer, and presenter. Hobby Life: I'm a blues dancer, hiker, and foodie.

Posted on October 23, 2016, in Literacy, Social Media, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great post. I used to teach high school science. I would tell my kids that if someone said, “It’s been proven that…” or “Studies show …” they should always ask questions:
    1. Who said and why might they say it?
    2. Who performed the study?
    3. Who paid for the study?
    4. What do they have to gain from the results of the study?
    I tried to show them how to recognize truth from untruth.

    I also like to post the link to Snopes.com when I see something circulating around Facebook. I also don’t like to give any attention to memes with famous people and quotes. Adding a “quote” to a photo doesn’t necessarily mean that person said it. Like you, I’m always in awe of what people fall for. However, in their defense, they are very trusting people and it’s too bad that they have to be on their guard.

  2. I like your analysis on the need for skepticism. It’s interesting how the Internet has turned the tables compared to traditional forms of media. It used to be the journalist’s responsibility to tell an accurate and trustworthy story. Now it’s the reader’s responsibility to do their research and decide what to believe. Hoaxes and misinformation are now the fault of the consumer instead of the producer.

    Although I philosophically agree about the importance of doing your research and being skeptical, I must admit that I often get lazy here. It’s simply exhausting to do that kind of investigation for everything I see online in the course of a given day. While Rheingold’s five principles are great guidelines, what does it look like to practically apply them? It’s also easy to fall down the rabbit hole of trying to trace the trail of every site — at what point do you stop? I like how you point out Snopes and a couple of other sites as your sources of truth that don’t require the same level of investigation because they’ve already earned your trust.

  3. “Sometimes Google search results give me a Snopes.com article. I tend to believe the Snopes website because it has been around busting urban folkore and “truthiness” for over twenty years.”

    I don’t trust Snopes just because it’s been around 20 years – after all The Onion has been around since 1988, and it’s not trustworthy! I trust it because it backs up its claims with verifiable sources. That is the same reason I (admittedly ironically) trust Wikipedia – albeit with a grain of salt.

    What bothers me is it’s always the same people who are always spreading the hoaxes, faked memes, and misinformation. No matter how many times I Snopes them or otherwise show them their “shared” information was incorrect, they just keep doing it. How many times do you need to have your “information” debunked before you start building some skepticism? Are these people too trusting or just have a broken BS-detector? (To be clear I’m not talking about people who refuse to accept new information because it interferes with their worldview – conspiracy theorists and the like. I’m talking about perfectly average people who honestly think they’re being helpful when they share a post that says entering my PIN in reverse at an ATM will call the cops or that cranberries and turmeric will cure cancer.)

    Speaking of The Onion, where does it stand in this conversation of misinformation on the Internet. Over and over, you hear stories of people who read an Onion article without realizing it is satire, then shares it as truth–and it gets propagated as truth and even occasionally makes it to mainstream media portrayed as truth. Is this publication acting unethically for publishing realistic-looking and -sounding articles that are 100% false? Should they have to plaster disclaimers all over their site so people know it’s satire?

    Or does the blame lie entirely on the reader who is unable to discern satire from fact and really thinks that Bill Gates will give them $4.5 million for sharing a Facebook post?

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