Voltaire once famously said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” This is often quoted as the defining statement for free speech upon which modern civilizations are built. While no reasonable person would argue against the sentiment, surely there have to be limits?
Would Voltaire have been so eager to sacrifice himself for someone disseminating false information? Not just a different opinion to the majority, but something that was palpably and provably false?
Before the rise of the internet, there were checks and balances in place that helped limit the spread of false information – these may not have been complete, but they existed. The downside of these controls was that they also created constraints against people who, quite rightly, had something of value to say.
The internet changed all that. Everyone has a voice. Everyone has an opinion. However, opinion does not automatically equate to fact, and that is where the real problem lies. There was a famous cartoon many years ago that showed a dog typing on a computer, with the tag line On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. A great cartoon, and one that has increased relevance in today’s information-hungry culture.
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, or an expert, or a complete nutcase. On the internet, there is no control over the validity of information. Wikipedia has replaced carefully researched reference books as the fount of all knowledge. Blogs and podcasts are produced by people who can (and do) describe themselves as ‘experts’ in a particular field. Often in these cases, people are not simply expressing opinions, but publishing ‘facts’.
Before looking at why this trend is so worrying, we also need to look at another problem with information taken from the internet: the CTRL ‘C’ – CTRL ‘V’ culture. Here’s how it works. Someone wants to become an instant expert, to promote themself (for whatever reason) as a person who understands international finance. The problem is they don’t know where to start. They have a blog, and it describes the person as one of the world’s leading thinkers in international finance. Because the person really knows nothing about the subject, what they will do is trawl the internet, using Google to find sites with content to copy and paste. They take information and repeat it.
That information is starting to gain validity. As the process is repeated by other people, then the facts become immutable. A fact that appears on two hundred websites, blogs, and Wikipedia is a fact that few would care to argue against. Yet who knows what the original source was?
The rise of Google has, in part, been fired by the use of information by corporate users. Strategic decisions that need verification are all too often verified by using the internet as the primary source, and these decisions could be based on misinformation. In historical research, there is the control structure of primary and secondary resource – original documentation and abstracted documentation. On the internet, this control doesn’t exist. Yet more and more decisions are being based upon information abstracted from the internet.
This appears to be a problem, the full ramifications of which are yet to be felt. Will it be too long before a company goes into bankruptcy because it made a market decision based (at least partly) on information garnered from the internet? Information that was false.
Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (www.butlergroup.com)