Disinformation in a digital world

Originally published in the Stanford Weekly as part of a column series known as Academe’s Vanguard that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

When the internet first entered the public imagination, it was seen as a beacon of freedom from the oppressive Cold War decades that had proceeded it. Information could travel around the world unhindered by cloistered regimes, goods could be easily bought and sold across borders, and ideas could be encountered by enormous audiences. Every ill of the world could be solved with a well-designed website and some publicity.

These initial hopes were well-founded through the heady times of the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. The internet provided new avenues of understanding the world and democratized information dissemination. Yet in the last couple of months, the dark-side forces that commentators have predicted would come - information fragmentation, political polarization, rampant conspiracy theories - seem to have rapidly advanced.

Chris Anderson explains in The Long Tail that retailers would do better on the internet if they focused on selling a little of a lot of goods as opposed to selling a few blockbuster items. Unfortunately, that theory is now being applied to information, with dangerous prospects ahead. Blogs and their associated portals are providing information with an enormously distorted lens, yet few seem willing to undo the damage.

America has passed an inflection point on the benefits of freedom of information. The initial days of the internet filled in reporting gaps and connected distant places together on an equal footing - the so-called flattening of the world. Today, the sheer granularity of sites allows those of all political persuasions to hear information from only one side - lowering the sophistication of political discourse.

Before the inflection point, there are huge gains to be made with greater to access to information. In unfree societies, there is an enormous need for a source of information that does not come from the state press or state television. The internet can supply information about the outside world and generate movements for government accountability. Countries like China and Iran attempt to restrict access to this technology for the single purpose of reducing the amount of news that is not controlled.

There is also a benefit for free societies like the United States, but the downside is more significant. Following the long tail phenomenon, information is available for all persuasions. Think Obama is the best president ever? There are thousands of websites to learn more. Think Obama is the antichrist (and born in Kenya)? There are thousands of sites for you, too. This range is found with every issue, from repairing the lights at my local elementary school to national health care reform.

The power and beauty of the internet was the exchange of competing theories - a marketplace of ideas. Ignorance could have no place in a world where every word can be verified by thousands. If someone, such as Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, made up a story, they would be quickly vilified for their inaccuracies - the internet could provide the proof necessary.

That was then. Few sites now cater to a wide gamut of political views (that would be considered too mainstream media), but instead focus on the provocative and hyperpartisan. Readers of newspapers would be confronted with a range of opinion articles, but today, it is possible to never see an article that challenges one’s beliefs.

The solution to such an endemic problem does not come from placing restrictions on the internet or abridging the First Amendment. Instead of looking at the suppliers, we need to focus on those demanding these websites.

The answer comes from a radical look at how students are taught in schools and colleges. We need to rebuild our education curriculum to impart on students better source analysis tools and scholastic judgment. When I receive an email chain letter that says that Coke is green, or that Obama is attempting to eliminate the elderly, I have the skills to do my due diligence and attempt to ascertain some level of truth. Whether Snopes or a Google search, the answer is usually extremely easy to find.

An example of such a unit comes from my high school. Try searching the quote “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality” on the internet. Despite thousands of sites saying otherwise, this quote does not appear anywhere in the Divine Comedy by Dante. Rather, it is a paraphrase used in a John F. Kennedy speech in Bonn, West Germany. The point of the unit was the difficulty of finding accuracy of information on the internet and the importance of digging for the truth.

We live in a world where there are no longer gatekeepers to the truth. The few reporters that are left can barely find time to check sources (and sometimes they just check Wikipedia, as the Maurice Jarre fake quote incident shows us). Editors no longer organize information from the accurate to the unwieldy. It is up to us as readers to not be beholden to the information we read and instead question it. The truth is a lot more mercurial now.

Our society does not have to be torn asunder by the polarization of the information on the internet. But we cannot expect bloggers to do the heavy-lifting. If we want to begin the process of returning to a logical and factual-driven society, we need to look no further than our own reading habits. Free societies have a lot of work to do before we can handle this long tail of information.