I think the Internet’s pretty awesome, really I do. It’s great to be able to settle dinnertime arguments and answer children’s millions of questions with a click of an iPhone button. It’s way convenient not have to travel down to the library to check out a book or look in the encyclopedia when I want to learn something new. And it’s great to be able to go into greater depth on the issues I care about without having to rely on only the nightly news or the daily paper.
Do you sense a “but” coming? You are right, and it’s a big one.
BUT a lot of what you read on the Internet is–NEWS FLASH–not true. Or it’s incomplete. Or slanted. Or out of context.
My freshman year at Georgetown my history professor introduced us to an idea I had never considered before. He said that you can’t take the accuracy of historical accounts for granted. He said you have to consider who wrote the account and when, and what personal or cultural biases might have influenced what he chose to include, what he left out, what conclusions he drew. For our final paper, we had to pick a controversial historical figure and read several sources for information, picking from different eras. We were to discuss why each authority presented what he did, and then reach our own conclusion about our subject.
I had grown up thinking–most of us did, I imagine–that if I read or watched the news each day I pretty much knew what was going on in the world. If Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings said it, you felt like you could trust them. Remember little Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked the editor of The New York Sun about the existence of Santa Claus, because her papa told her: “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so”?
Distrust of the mainstream media started before the Internet, of course, but has accelerated since. Now everyone can be an expert, and no one has to give up any cherished opinion because, after all, one can fine website after website to support any position or point of view. Far from educating us, it’s actually entrenching us further in willful ignorance.
I am that obnoxious person who will actually write you back to refute the email you just sent me saying that President Obama canceled the National Day of Prayer or that President Bush has the lowest I.Q. of any president in the last 50 years. I’ll send you the link from snopes.com to prove it. I’ll post it in the comments if you put it on Facebook and I might just blog about it too. That’s because truth is important and in the days of instant information overload, it’s in short supply.
Essentially, most of us are intellectually lazy. And also we are accustomed to thinking that if we read a published account, especially if it’s on a mainstream website like AOL, it’s true. Few of us realize how the very issues of importance are decided upon for us by the media. We read what they want us to read, how they want to present it, and they are no longer driven by a quest for truth but rather by a quest for page views. Any time I read something that is stirring up a lot of comments and controversy, I am immediately suspicious of it and start to delve further.
A good example is a story that made the rounds a few months ago that Pope Benedict said that “Gay marriage is a threat to humanity’s future.” Long story short, that’s not what he said. Creative reuse of one or two comments he made in a long speech created the impression that not only did he say that, but it was all he said or cared about. But even in these deceptive stores, they include hyperlinks that can lead to the truth if you try hard enough. Eventually I was able to find out when and to whom the remarks were made, and then I went to the Vatican website and read the whole speech myself. That way I did not have to rely on AOL to tell me what to think. I could think for myself.
(Side note to my Catholic readers: Do I seriously need to tell you that Huffpost News isn’t the best source for the facts about Catholicism? Might I suggest the USCCB website, or the Catechism, or the Vatican website, or at the very least that you read the original source material for yourself before allowing your view of your own faith to be influenced by the media, which is at best ignorant and at worst hostile about religion?)
Same thing with the recent talk about how 98% of Catholic women use birth control. That figure comes from a study, supposedly. Much back-clicking finally yielded that study itself, so that I could see that the much-bandied statistic is inaccurate.
Or there was the whole Kirk Cameron-is-a-bigot “scandal,” which looks a bit different if you actually watch the interview in which his remarks were made or read the entire transcript, as I took the time to do.
Or there’s the perception that people with children need to keep them under perpetual lockdown because of all those people stealing kids out there? (As I told my mother yesterday, “If it happened all the time it wouldn’t be news.”)
Or there’s the email I received yesterday containing allegations that President Obama is a Muslim, or a Marxist, or both.
I cannot say this often enough: consider your source. Consider your source. CONSIDER YOUR SOURCE! What bias does it have? Can it speak authoritatively to the topic? What advantage does it gain by portraying the “facts” in a certain light? Wherever possible, read the speech yourself (the whole speech). Watch the video yourself (the whole thing). Check a reputable, fact-checking site. The Internet helps lies to spread like wildfire, but don’t forget that it also provides the tools you need to refute them.
There are always going to be stories that cannot be confirmed this way–ones in which, for example, eyewitnesses give conflicting accounts. Or maybe you don’t have time to read the entire Affordable Care Act (although I am seriously considering making the attempt). In such cases you should read several sources. Factcheck.org is a good choice if you want to avoid bias. I find it helpful to read sources with opposing viewpoints so I see both sides of the story before forming an opinion.
Does this sound exhausting? Sometimes it is. Sometimes I see an inaccuracy or misrepresentation on Facebook that I know is going to take more than a quick trip to Snopes to investigate but I still do it. You can make it easier for me and other truth-seekers if you do the same, BEFORE you post that interesting article that supports what you were thinking already. You can check Snopes, or look at Factcheck.org. You can take a few minutes to click back to that article’s original source and read it and THINK FOR YOURSELF. And if you are too intellectually lazy to do those things, you can choose not to forward or repost.