Editorial

The Internet is Self-Correcting

Compared to TV, the Internet makes it extremely easy to expose oneself to a humongous variety of perspectives and opinions from across the political spectrum and around the globe.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 27, 2007

The various platforms that make up the Internet - the World Wide Web, email, Usenet and IRC - have collectively been a prolific source of misinformation, urban legends, hoaxes, frauds, and other falsehoods.

From a seemingly endless stream of email hoaxes and scams to outrageous, too-good-to-be-true stories that get passed around the world before anyone discovers they're phony, the ease, power and reach of the Internet has proven to be a godsend for perpetuating misleading memes.

It gets more serious than mis-identified sheep and airport hijinx. The hard-to-kill fiction that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to "wipe Israel off the map," for a frightening example, has hardened many a North American resolve to escalate the war of words between Iran and the USA.

Self-Correcting Over Time

It's easy to dismiss the Internet as a vast, writhing grapevine of nonsense and rubbish, and many traditional journalists do just that. At the same time, the Internet has some advantages over other media that give it a real edge in correcting its own errors.

In short, despite the proliferation of humbug, the Internet tends to be self-correcting over time. The very power that makes it easy to spread nonsense also makes it much easier to fact-check, chase leads, study in-depth, and debunk falsehoods.

Every time I get an email that looks the tiniest bit suspicious (say, Bill Gates wants to pay me to test a new type of email message), the first thing I do is check Snopes, an urban legends clearinghouse, to see if it has already been investigated.

Similarly, when I read a newspaper report that sounds hard to believe or makes reference to a third party study, I run a quick google search to see if I can find the source of the claim.

In the traditional press, by contrast, corrections rarely get anything like the coverage that original incorrect reports get. If they're published at all, they appear days later in small format in a different part of the paper, with no easy way to reference back to the original report.

This is a limitation of the medium itself, though various news agencies do a better or worse job at openness, transparency and accountability within the means available to them.

TV Makes You Dumber

Compared to TV news, of course, the Internet is a teasure trove of information, discourse, debate, argument and error-checking. TV News has the dubious distinction of actually making people who rely on it for information dumber.

The issue has been studied exhaustively by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) in a large number of polls conducted since early 2003. Here's one of their studies on the correlation between the way a person gets their news and the number of misconceptions they have about Iraq. You can find plenty more on the PIPA website.

A very recent poll by Pew Research Centre found that people who read newspapers and watch The Daily Show are the most knowledgeable about political affairs, while people who get their, er, information from FOX News were the least knowledgeable.

An older study from Leeds University on knowledgeability about the first Gulf War found:

TV news seems to confuse more than it clarifies. Even after controlling for all other variables, we discovered that the correlation between TV watching and knowledge was actually quite often a negative one. ... [O]verall, the more TV people watched, the less they knew.

A September 2003 study of CNN found that a given hour of broadcasting contained less than minutes of actual news reporting. The rest of the time was taken with repeating headlines, informercials, commercials, tabloid stories, talk show content, and so on.

Varieties of Faux News

Another problem is the documented rise in fake news, government and/or corporate propaganda that is delivered to TV networks and broadcast as if they produced it themselves.

As traditional news providers are under more competition from new technology news providers, they are increasingly turning, according to the latest annual study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, to business models, niche marketing, and so on to compete. As a result, the news they provide is gradually becoming less straight and more entertaining, which risks making it less useful.

The consequences of this narrowing of focus involve more risk than we sense the business has considered. Concepts like hyper localism, pursued in the most literal sense, can be marketing speak for simply doing less. Branding can also be a mask for bias.

This is also evident in the vast increase in so-called "celebrity news", which consumes a remarkable share of "news" reporting with entertaining fluff that distracts attention and crowds out reporting on events that can actually affect people's lives.

More TV = Less Knowledge

The negative corelation between TV viewing and accurate knowledge seems to apply more generally. Here are just a few examples:

A study by the American Journal of Managed Care found that TV news, and especially local TV news, does a poor job of reporting health news. From their conclusion:

Local television news devotes significant airtime to health stories, yet few newscasts provide useful information, and some stories with factually incorrect information and potentially dangerous advice were aired.

Another study, this time from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that the more TV children and adolescents watch, the more confused they are about what foods are healthy to eat.

Single-Source Bias

It's not too hard to conclude that when you get most of your news from a single source - a single newspaper or a single TV station - you're going to miss a lot. If you get your news from a constellation of sources, which is most easily achieved via the Internet, it's a lot easier to get the variety, cross-checking, back-and-forth dialogue, reader responses, and so on, that are required to catch and debunk errors.

I'm not aware of any controlled studies on the superiority of the Internet as a broad-spectrum news source, but consider the following data points:

  1. Much of the content of news websites is produced by conventional newsmedia (newspaper, magazines, and TV) as an online projection of their traditional news gathering and reporting business.

  2. Most of the content of blogs/social websites cites its sources. In other words, you can check if an article really said what a commentator claims it said with a click of a button.

  3. When you get your news online, it's a lot easier to get news from a very wide variety of sources. Social networking sites like Reddit, news aggregators like Google News and Yahoo! News, and RSS readers make this very easy.

To be sure, it's possible to spend all of your time in a single online news "ghetto"; but if you decide you want to diversify, it's a lot easier than with print newspapers or TV networks.

Multiple Sources Reduce Error

I can read the Globe and Mail, the Guardian, the Economist, the Independent, the Asia Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Toronto Star, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Ha'aretz, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the BBC, the CBC, CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and so on, all from the comfort of my desk.

I can also read Snopes, Slate, Alternet, Common Dreams (in which human editors aggregate articles from other sources), Talking Points Memo, Andrew Sullivan's blog, Editor & Publisher, and a whole host of other sites that are operated and edited by writers, journalists, columnists, and so on.

The range of professionalism, accuracy, accountability and so on is an awful lot larger on the internet than it is on TV; but while the latter is fairly standardized and uniform, it's also uniformly bad. The former, by contrast, ranges from appallingly bad to excellent with everything in between.

Talk Back

The real strength of the online media is that they are interactive and dynamic. Media entities endlessly cross-reference each other through hyperlinks, RSS aggregators, technorati-style tags, trackbacks, and, of course, journalists, columnists, and bloggers with unprecedented power to search, collate, challenge, and so on.

Finally, readers themselves can and enthusiastically do perform all of these activities as well, generating yet another layer of research, fact-checking and accountability. In turn, readers also argue and fact-check each other's contributions and the writers get in on the act as well.

Don't underestimate the importanc of this point: as the editor of a volunteer-based online civic affairs magazine, I can state unequivocally that we learn at least as much from our readers as from our own investigations. They've more than doubled our capacity to report events, analyze issues, and debate policies.

Escaping Partisan Ghettoes

The result is that it's comparatively difficult for a demonstrably false claim to survive for very long on the internet. Whole websites exist for the singular purpose of debunking false claims, from Snopes to the rabid fact-checkers on Wikipedia (e.g. in the past few months, I've learned from Wikipedia that "May you live in interesting times" is not a real Chinese curse, in an article that cites its sources).

Of course, some people still manage it, mostly by staying inside the warm cocoon of, say, Free Republic, Little Green Footballs and the like (I mention them not because they're right-wing but because they so proudly hold the truth in contempt), but it takes an especially virulent strain of confirmation bias to block out the blizzard of inconvenient countervailing data points and plausible systems of connections among them.

It is extremely easy to expose oneself to a humongous variety of perspectives and opinions from across the political spectrum and around the globe via the internet, through social networking sites, RSS feeds, news aggregators, keyword searches, and so on; whereas it is difficult and requires a sustained act of will not to do so.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his essays have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on twitter.

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