Can the Internet Be Trusted?
Did you know that under Bill 602P, the federal government will levy an “alternative postage fee” of five cents for every e-mail message you send? The legislation, currently pending, would compensate the U.S. Postal Service for lost business from the growing popularity of e-mail. The government would bill your Internet Service provider, which would in turn bill you.
This was the essence of an e-mail alert I recently received, with the sender urging me to write my congressman in protest and to forward the alert to everyone in my e-mail address book.
Sure, it’s all bogus, an Internet hoax and urban legend that’s been circulating for years. But these kinds of info scams do snag their victims, wasting time and draining productivity.
This is just one way the Internet is abused as an information medium. The e-mail with the “inside” information about a stock, the Web site with “unbiased” medical advice that’s silently sponsored by a pharmaceutical or herbal company, the Internet discussion group “troll” who deliberately posts inflammatory opinions to start arguments — all are examples of information abuse.
The Internet is not unique here. People, businesses and governments have been abusing information delivery channels since time immemorial. Microsoft Corp., combining elements of both old and new, embarrassed itself when it was revealed last month that a group it funded had orchestrated a nationwide campaign of “citizen” letters to government officials urging them to end their antitrust actions against the company.
Some of the letters, purportedly, were written by dead people, according to the Los Angeles Times. All of the letters were made to appear to be spontaneous expressions of ordinary people.
Though the Internet is not unique, it is special. As the greatest boon to information dissemination since the invention of the printing press, it is also the greatest boon to info scams. And because it’s so easy to put information on the ‘Net, it’s equally easy to find false information.
How can you protect yourself? How should you ferret out good information on the ‘Net from bad? How do you find truth?
First, don’t overreact. There is much information of value to be found everywhere on the ‘Net. You just need to think critically about what you come across.
Think about who’s behind the information. Is it a news organization, professional or trade group, government agency, nonprofit organization, company, educational institution, advocacy group, student or hobbyist? Different sources employ different levels of thoroughness in research and fact-checking and different levels of objectivity.
Think about why the person or organization is presenting the information. Individuals and organizations often have agendas, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden. If you uncover the agenda and keep it in mind when evaluating the information, you will be better able to filter out any bias.
Think about whether the information is paid for. Some Internet search engines place sites at the top of their listings not because of their usefulness or popularity but because these sites have paid for top billing. Some book review sites accept payments from publishers for endorsing books without notifying readers. When in doubt, send the site an e-mail message asking about its policies.
Think about if, or how widely, the information diverges from your current understanding. If it diverges widely and may affect an important business, health or family decision, try to verify the same information with at least two other sources. Information scientists call this the “principle of triangulation of data.”
Think about whether the information is new or old. A lot of deadwood data is floating around in cyberspace at Web sites that haven’t been updated in several years. If the site doesn’t include a “Last updated” line or otherwise date its content, check out some of its links. If more than a couple are no longer working, the information at the site may no longer be up to date either.
Think about substance. Don’t judge a Web site by its appearance alone. Looks can and do deceive. But appearance does count. A site that looks slopped together may include information that’s been sloppily researched and presented.
In short, be skeptical, not cynical, about the Internet as an informational resource. The watchword is “Caveat lector” — Let the reader beware.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
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