Bri Manning

The Internet of Misinformation

June 23, 2014

People have distrusted Wikipedia since it started. “Anyone can edit it so you can’t trust it,” was the reasoning. I understand that reasoning. I don’t agree with it, but I understand the sentiment.

On the other side, there are sites run by people who seem to be actively misleading and misinforming. With the publication online, there is no chance to ridicule that person as being out of touch with reality. That’s the weakness of everyone having the ability to speak. In the real world, when someone makes an outrageous claim, you can laugh at the lunacy. Tabloids were the center of silly ideas with no one taking them seriously before. Now online, the person inclined to believe these things finds like-minded people. People who agree with and reinforce their ridiculous beliefs.

For a while, you could point someone to Snopes as a definitive source for example. What spurs me to write this was someone claiming that George Soros owns Snopes and Snopes publishes lies. Lies including the refutation of “birther” claims. I couldn’t tell if the writer was lying to himself or deliberately trying to spread misinformation.

How do we deal with things like this? How can we both sort through credible and discredible sources? How do we credit a source when it should be? And how do we discredit those that are not?

I’ve been more and more disappointed with the value of many sites: Reddit, Hacker News, Facebook. They’ve all had their own shares of nonsense and false or misleading statements. There is filtering out noise to find the signal, but this is something else. Noise doesn’t capture it.

I read an article recently about how conspiracy theories percolate and grow online. The internet has made their dissemination stronger while giving them undeserved credibility. How do we combat these disingenuous and illogical ideas?

If we refute them with details and facts, those facts are often ignored. By even discussing them, it gives the ideas credibility. Ignoring them doesn’t help either because the echo chamber that these ideas live in will thrive on the silence. All that’s left is ridicule or burying those comments and articles.

I’m a huge fan of the freedom of speech, but there needs to be a way to combat falsehoods. I’m not sure how we do it online, but in real life it’s met with laughter and shunning. Should and could the same happen online?