Monday, February 27, 2006

Two-Word Search and a Click: Eleven Crocodiles Eat Denzel Washington

The 21st Century is a period of identity crisis for the traditional media. Conferences and commentaries almost daily explore what is happening to newspapers, magazines, and network news in a world of blogs, podcasts, instant messages, and the like. In this changing environment it is easier than ever to present the world with nonsense opinions, and propaganda: easier than it is to provide reasoned analysis and verifiable reporting.

In the past, knowing the organization that sponsored or published the information helped to understand its motivation and trustworthiness. Americans who cared about political commentary knew the difference between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They understood what the ACLU or the People for the American Way stood for. The Christian Science Monitor earned a world-wide reputation for fair reporting. Today, some authors are well known enough to judge and stable organizations do run web sites and blogs. But now, no one needs a sponsor or publisher to put opinions, some of them radically slanted or poorly researched, before audiences of millions.

Consumers of the new outlets of news and information need a skill set they never needed before. One of those skills is to be extremely skeptical of unknown-source information. Skepticism treats information as unproven until it is supported by trustworthy evidence. (This is opposed to cynicism which questions the motives of sender of the information.)

It is vital to have an increased awareness of sources of information and how that might affect its value. Unless the author of a blog is well-known to the reader, blogs (including perhaps this one) should be treated as entertainment, not education. Education gives one the knowledge and skills to live a better life (however defined). Entertainment simply distracts one from life. The term “educational television” was developed during my school years to discriminate it from the entertainment type. However, a lot of educational TV is merely a distraction from daily life in which the ones having sex are animals instead of soap opera actors.

The sources of many web sites, blogs, and podcasts are hidden from the consumer. But the worst examples of hidden-source information in my mind are rumors promulgated by email. Within the past few months my email was a source of “information” about a 21 foot crocodile killed while hunting humans in New Orleans, the rehabilitation facility Denzel Washington bought for the Army, the occult connection between the World Trade Center attacks and the number 11 and several more fabrications.

What do these three stories have in common? None of them are true. They are classic urban legends hanging out in their new home on the Internet. The crocodile wasn’t 21 feet long, wasn’t hunting humans and wasn’t killed in New Orleans. Denzel made a donation to an Army medical program but not for a whole rehab facility. The WTC story was a combination of biased evidence selection, bad math, and made up facts (a.k.a. lies).

In an environment where information is easier to get in more ways than ever before, the responsibility of people who use these means is greater also. Rumors, gossip and lies have always been, and always will be, with us. Unfortunately now, careless, clueless and conscience-less people have a tool to spread their misinformation in a flash to many others, even around the world. The quick, easy, fast, and basically free sharing of information is a strength of the Internet and is also one of its weaknesses.

Responsible correspondents, whether they are bloggers for the New York Times or friends forwarding emails, must use the strength of the Internet as a response. It is easier to track down nonsense, if only one will take the time to do it. Each of the stories above took a two-word Google search and one mouse click to find information discrediting it. (I pride myself on this “two-words-plus-one-click” ability.) The links above to the stories I described are to three different web sites that specialize in shooting down urban legends.

The next time you get an incredible email and have the urge to pass it on to friends, take the time to try two-words-plus-one-click. Before you pass it on, you have a responsibility to check it out. But don’t take me off your lists completely. I need a little nonsense now and then to keep the grey matter sharp. So to my friends and students: You keep sendin’em along, and I’ll keep knockin’em down.

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