The Online Truth We All Share
In 1969, the first message was sent through the internet. In 1989, the very first infrastructures and coding standards of what we would come to know as the World Wide Web were being built. At that time, humanity marveled at the possibility of providing everyone with unprecedented access to information.
Now, after only a quarter of a century later, that possibility is becoming a reality. Having an internet connection and access to the World Wide Web at anytime and anywhere is part of everyday modern civilization; and for those who still don’t have that capability to get online, that right is being fought for by companies like Google (via Project Loon) and Facebook (via the Internet.org project).
While the perception of Google and Facebook’s intentions for doing so range from purely altruistic to shrouded with commercial interest, it’s still nice to know that sometime in the near future, the whole world would be connected via the internet.
Information for everyone – the World Wide Web’s promise of bringing information to every person on the planet is being fulfilled.
However, the World Wide Web did only promise information. It didn’t say anything about delivering truths or facts. The speed by which the internet delivers information from one device to another made it possible for us to research facts and receive news quickly; but it also allowed truth’s ugly brother – lies – to reach our attention and influence our decision just as fast.
An avalanche of truths and a tidal wave of lies move through the internet each and every second; lies in particular, and tons of it ranging from the completely funny and harmless to the entirely devious and malicious, are empowered by the internet to grab our attention, reach our consciousness, and influence our decisions.
Some lies are innocent enough. It’s a friend’s 25th birthday on Facebook when you clearly know that she’s already 30; or Justin Bieber going bald with photo proof doing rounds on the internet that looks obviously photoshopped. These lies, whether they managed to dupe us or not, don’t really affect our lives all that much.
Others, on the other hand, have created an industry by writing and spreading factually untrue stories. The Onion, The Daily Currant, and other satirical news sites make a living creating these entertaining pieces. But they are exactly that – for the purposes of entertainment. Plus, the sources are transparent about the false nature of their work.
However, when lies on sensitive or important issues come out looking and behaving like the truth – when a lie contains all the authority signals and gets spread and shared like news; that’s when people start believing that Jackie Chan fell down a cliff and died while shooting a film or that you can type your password backwards on the ATM machine as a subtle way to alert the police if you’re under coercion.
How about on subjects that have the potential to greatly affect our lives and decision making? It will take someone up to page 6 on a Google search (as of this writing) before finding a review of this popular dating product which shows any semblance of true research and genuine concern for the reader’s buying decisions. One could only imagine how many people’s dating and relationship futures were led astray by the inaccurate and misleading information provided by sites on the first 5 pages. After all, it’s Google, right? And people trust Google to show only the best results.
You can say the same for a professionally and elegantly designed website that is peddling a weight loss product. It’s hard to dismiss something that has Dr. Oz’s picture on it as well as all the badges from reputable health organizations. Who would suspect that it’s a lie if it was liked and shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook?
There’s also that e-mail my brother opened on his Yahoo! Mail which managed to find its way into his inbox. Oblivious to the fact that it’s a scam, he clicked on it because it promised a lucrative job placement overseas. Trusting that Yahoo!’s filters would do its job, a layman’s tendency is to believe that every e-mail that passes through is clean.
The online truth we all share is that there are also a lot of online lies we all share. Information for everyone, whether truthful or not, is the promise of the internet and the World Wide Web.
It would be a different and safer online world if everything passing through the World Wide Web is the truth. But until such time, it pays to be vigilant and heed that advice that “you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”