“It’s hard to know what’s true online.”
Not exactly sure why, but as the rest of the carload slept yesterday during our drive home through the Berkshires, I decided to indulge in an hour of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on the radio and the experience was, in a word, unsettling. Not because of the politics; spinning is a fine art that both conservatives and liberals have mastered. No, what was really scary is that both of them opined that it was basically the job of the listener to find where truth lies.
Hannity, as he interviewed the authors of the latest anti-Kerry tome regarding his service as a swift-boat captain, basically said it was his duty to raise these issues because his audience needs to have all the “facts” in order to make up their own minds and come to their own conclusions. O’Reilly, at the end of his show, responded to a caller’s concerns about the general ignorance of the electorate with a quote that went something like “hey, the Constitution protects everyone’s right to be a moron.” Nice.
My angst here lies in the fact that it is REALLY hard to figure out what is true and not true these days. The whole swift boat affair is a perfect example. Way too many charges and counter charges. Unfortunately, most people would rather take the word of Hannity and O’Reilly and Franken than do the heavy lifting (and most likely get all confused in the process.) Used to be that we could somewhat trust the major newspapers to give us the straightforward scoop on what was happening, but now even their motivations and biases are in question.
So where do we find truth? And where do we find it if we don’t want to do the heavy lifting? And how do we teach our kids to figure it all out for themselves?
My instinct wants to say that blogs and bloggers are an answer here, somehow. That reading blogs and writing in blogs and becoming part of the discussion is a good start. I keep thinking about I-Law when Lawrence Lessig basically said that everyone should start a blog and read blogs, simply because of the democratizing potential they have. This is heavy lifting…reading, writing. But potentially it’s also a new way of teaching our kids to make sense of a increasingly difficult and complex world. While blogs and the like may add more static to the signal, I also think they get us closer to a collective truth. It’s not easy, I know, and a lot of the same issues apply to blogs as to other media. But there is that social aspect of all of this, the reputation that readers and users assign to products and ideas. That’s kind of an unexplored but important part of this in my brain.
Dan Gillmor, in an interview at Wired about his new book, said:
“It’s hard to know what’s true online. We’ve evolved a fairly good BS test in the analog world: I know the supermarket tabloid story about George Bush’s latest Martian love child is almost certainly false. But one website looks as good as another, and some people perversely believe — and can then spread easily — anything they see online.
The opportunity for outright fraudulent behavior is also greater, with Photoshopped pictures, phony press releases, pump-and-dump chat room schemes and the like. Again, the lies can spread at the speed of light and rumor.”
The need to help our students sort all of that out is just becoming more and more acute.
Andy Carvin says
One of the great challenges in getting students to learn how to discern content veracity and bias on the Internet is that not all teachers are fully comfortable in doing this themselves. I remember back at the Natl Education Computing Conference six or seven years ago, I did an experiment using a website that had recently been published. The site, http://www.tass.net, posted a story saying that former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot had fled Cambodia and was seeking asylum in Scandinavia. The website was actually a joke, but the fact that the site was called tass.net made some wire services think it was the Russian Tass news agency, and reposted the story.
With this in mind, I set myself up at a public Internet terminal and pretended to be browsing the page, then struck up a conversation with the teacher next to me, showing them the site and saying how unbelievable it was. I tried this on over a dozen teachers, and only one of them showed any skepticism about the site. “If this is really TASS, why is the site in English?” All the others accepted the site as real.