One of the more inspired bits of satire produced by the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, was their 1974 album “Everything You Know is Wrong.” In the case of modern news media this phrase could be changed to: “everything you hear, see, and read is wrong.” Nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet. In his article: “Critics and the Internet” Daniel Hindes outlines the problem:
The Internet has also ushered in a new era of communication, where anyone can become a publisher and reach a global audience for a cost that approaches zero. A veritable Wild West of information has sprung up, where verifiable facts and the most outlandish speculation mingle freely (often in one article). Anyone can agitate for any cause, and there are no editors checking facts and quotes. The reader is left entirely to their individual judgment in determining the veracity of anything they read.-Daniel Hindes
While discerning fact from fiction in the news is nothing new, when it comes to the internet, several factors make the task much more daunting than it used to be.
Thanks to the internet, the sheer volume of news available to us today is overwhelming. (A simple Google search for “Barack Obama” turns up links to some twenty-seven million websites.) We are awash in a virtual sea of information. Unfortunately this also means that the amount of misinformation and disinformation out there is equally mind-boggling. Wading through a small puddle of information to get to the truth is hard enough. Trying to sift through an ocean of sites is… trying.
Another factor which makes winnowing out the truth on the internet difficult is the speed with which modern news is disseminated. When I was young, library encyclopedias were updated every year or so. Magazines were printed monthly or weekly, papers daily. Occasionally there would be a live TV news broadcast – the moon landing comes to mind – but by and large, the pace that news was spread was relatively slow. Today, the news cycle is measured, not in months, days or hours, but in minutes. If Hillary Clinton passes gas in public it’s likely to be posted on YouTube before the smell is gone. (I’m not kidding. Try Googling “Hillary Clinton farts” and see what you get.) Even if it’s a total hoax, any internet news report still has a chance of going “viral”, reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers, before its veracity can be examined, much less verified.
Frame of Reference
A third problem is the internet’s lack of a frame of reference. When you hold a newspaper or magazine in your hand, you have a frame of reference for the words and ideas it contains and can more easily weigh the relative reliability of the source. The famous iconic photograph of Truman holding up a newspaper with the 90 point headline: “Dewey Wins!” is a classic example of this. Truman can smile because the headline was so laughably wrong.
If the internet had been around in Truman’s time, he might not have had such a big smile on his face. The speed, volume and lack of reference for the information might have allowed this same headline to influence or even change the election results. A good example of this was the recent report in the Canadian press about an alleged meeting between an Obama advisor and the Canadian consulate, ostensibly to reassure the Canadians that Obama was just blowing smoke about wanting to scrap NAFTA. Although later proven to be inaccurate, this story appeared shortly before the Ohio primary, spread across the internet like wildfire, and is thought to have contributed, at least in part, to Hillary Clinton’s primary victory in that state.
Perhaps the oddest example of change in the way news is spread over the internet is the YouTube/ My Space phenomenon. The recent flap over the incendiary sermons by Barrack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright; the embarrassing gaffe by Hillary Clinton over her “misstatements” about her trip to Bosnia; even clips of John McCain’s legendary temper, all prove the power of this new form of communication in shaping public opinion.
Advances in media technology have long played a seminal role in American politics. From FDR's "fireside chats" to the famous debates between John F.Kennedy and Richard Nixon which Nixon won on the issues but lost on image. Now, YouTube and it's host of imitators seem poised to revolutionize political discourse once again. Sound bites and short video clips spread across the web like wind in a wheatfield. One can almost envision a time when elections are decided not on the basis of issues or even charisma, but on who wins the YouTube wars.
Opinion vs. News
The speed, volume and lack of reference frame is also a problem because it allows for a blurring of the lines between news and opinion. In the past, a newspaper may have had an editorial slant – union newspapers vs. business journals – but in general, newspaper articles concentrated on the facts; who, what where and why. Speculation and opinions were largely left to the editorial page. Now, with the advent of blogs and talk radio, the separation has become fuzzier. Much of what passes as news these days is little more than anecdote, opinion and innuendo.
What does all this mean? For one thing it means manipulating public opinion has become much easier than it used to be. Disinformation - defined as the placement of deliberately misleading information announced publicly or leaked by a government, intelligence agency, corporation or other entity for the purpose of influencing opinions or perceptions - has become a standard weapon in the arsenal of political operatives, pundits, corporate spin-meisters, and talk show hosts. The volume of news and the speed with which it is disseminated often make the disease of disinformation metastasize till the truth all but dies. Political attack campaigns like “Swift-boat Veterans for Truth”, while not exactly new, would not have been nearly as effective in the past as they are with the internet today.
Beyond political smear campaigns, lately we have seen an increase in “fake news.” Like snake-oil salesmen of old, today, purveyors of false news stories are everywhere. The Bush Administration, in particular, has been extremely active at this. Columnist Armstrong Williams being paid $240,000 to support “No Child Left Behind”; The Department of Health and Human Services hiring Karen Ryan to do a series of fake news stories touting the Administration’s Medicare plan; both are blatant examples of manipulation of the media. Other examples are more subtle. For example, in 2005 James Guckert, (AKA Jeff Gannon), gained national attention posing as a reporter and lobbing softball questions to President Bush at press briefings. Politicians are not the only ones who recognize the power of the internet for spreading disinformation. The Office of Strategic Influence, or OSI, a department created by the United States Department of Defense on October 30, 2001, was to have been a center for the creation of propaganda materials, for the stated purpose of misleading enemy forces or foreign civilian populations. (Though ostensibly disbanded in 2002 due to public outrage, its operations have reportedly been taken over by the Pentagon’s Information Operations Task Force.) Today the Pentagon continues to study what it terms,“Information warfare.”
Many in the military still advocate spreading the “war on terror” to the blogosphere. Wired Magazine quotes former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who at a recent conference on “Network Centric Warfare,” called for a twenty-first century agency for global communications, ranging from blogs to online social-networking sites to talk radio. In Rumsfeld’s words, “There are multiple channels for information. The internet is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities.”
While using the internet to promote US ideals is a laudable goal, deliberately spreading false information and propaganda over the web is extremely dangerous. Like a cloud of mustard gas when the wind shifts, disinformation poisons the airwaves and web making it impossible for any of us to tell truth from falsehood. An example of this effect is documented in the New York Times Article titled, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand”. As revealed by this article, the Pentagon has been spoon feeding information to a cadre of former generals who appear regularly on network television as “news analysts”:
Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.
Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Mr. Cheney, Alberto R. Gonzales and Stephen J. Hadley.
In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.
The volume, speed and lack of reference for modern news makes it imperative that all of us be increasingly vigilant and skeptical of what we hear, see and read – especially on the internet. From editorials citing unnamed “intelligence sources”, to the avalanche of sound clips from pundits and politicians, to the never ending deluge of internet opinion polls on every topic from presidential preferences to Bittany and “Brangelina”; we must learn to take things we read on the internet with a huge grain of salt. As our legal system states that all who stand accused are innocent until proven guilty, so must our modern news be accepted as false until backed up, corroborated, or proven as fact. Fox News’ signature tag line “Fair and Balanced” may be laughable in the extreme; however, there are numerous examples on the web of other news outlets that advertise their product as impartial but who are actually just spreading biased opinion, political propaganda, and outright lies.
Despite advances in search engine algorithms, performing web searches remains something of an arcane Boolean art form. Still, as tedious and time consuming as it is, fact checking news articles on the web has become essential in the twenty-first century in order to reach something that even vaguely resembles the truth.