We live in the Misinformation Age

June 2, 2014

Thanks to indexing sites like Google, free and instant-access encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and a limitless amount of data that can be shared instantly, we are living in the start of the era of the Information Age, characterized by the prevalence of technology and computers in virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. That said, not all of the information being shared at unprecedented rates is legitimate. More and more often, the spread of false information can go viral, causing damage in an innumerable number of ways. Is this the information age, or the misinformation age?

In 1995, Barbara and David Mikkelson created Snopes.com, a site dedicated to providing the truth behind urban legends, particularly those that were being sent virally over the early consumer net in e-mails. Today, stores circulate over Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr every day – the sharing system designed for interesting links, posts, and articles has been relegated to millions of individuals posting (and, presumably, believing) fictitious stories varying from snake-oil health treatments to patients “getting free surgery for 1,000 likes”.

As the Internet becomes more and more commonplace, people who are not intimately connected to the technological industry fail to recognize the ease with which falsified data can be created and distributed. Thousands flock to support causes or act in mystifying ways because “it has to be true, I saw it on the Internet!” Satire is becoming lost on us as our news outlets trend towards bizarre events – thanks to the Internet, exposure to seemingly ridiculous things is so ingrained in us that many no longer stop to consider the probability behind the pages being consumed from in front of the screen. And this is a problem.

Evidenced by the distressingly prevalent articles that showcase the worst that humanity has to offer, there are bad people in the world. There are also people who don’t have the ability to understand the implications of their actions online, even when it is seemingly harmless – and there are those who just want to watch the world burn. Message boards and answers sites are trolled by individuals telling unwary readers to mix bleach and ammonia to make crystals, or passing on fake information for political gain (The Affordable Care Act does not required an implanted RFID chip, in case you were wondering). The ads you see on the sides of websites are often made using stolen photographs from personal accounts without the owner’s knowledge, implying a false sense of endorsement and encouraging the spread of false information.

It’s always amazed me to see my intelligent friends spreading false stories “just in case ;)!” and spouting statistics that they’ve heard from The Onion. This indicates a lack of judgement and critical thinking – not because someone isn’t smart, but because we haven’t been taught (as a whole) how to understand the basics of the Internet and how easy it is to lie when the average Joe won’t get caught doing it.

When I was a kid, I fell often into the trap of “why would someone lie for no reason?” The reality kind of sucks – people can, and often do, make things up. In the past, this wasn’t such a problem, because the false information couldn’t be instantly passed on to all of your friends, family members, and random people on your social networks instantly with a click of the mouse or tap of the finger. Not to mention, hearing a fact that sounds strange – “Did you know that someone won twenty bajillion dollars from this fan page on Facebook called ~~iL0v3TH3B3ibs!!!!!!~~” from another person, rather than online, instantly puts on alert – the majority of people recognize the inherently fallible nature of the information we speak but neglect to translate that into a healthy sense of analysis of what they read and see online.

Only time will tell the implications of this type of action and how it affects the general population. Ideally, the ability to think critically and a better understanding of the Internet (and technology in general) will be nurtured and learned, preventing a generation of trusting individuals from becoming complacent – because actually going out and studying is not the same as liking a science quote, and liking a photo of a doctor doesn’t actually help save lives.


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