You’re probably aware that I am rather passionate about the uses and abuses of online content as a source of information and misinformation. The ability for the internet to completely distort and manipulate our view of the world is immense and so far isn’t taken seriously enough — particularly by the media operations that still use the internet for fact-checking.
What hadn’t occurred to me before was the feedback loop of misinformation caused by Wikipedia and highlighted yesterday by a brilliant post by Will Critchlow over at SEOmoz.
This is exactly the problem I see with democratised information gathering. We know Wikipedia is fallible and unreliable — no news there. But even Wikipedia’s attempts to correct mistakes can be subjected to the same feedback loop if the erroneous news reports containing ‘facts’ sourced from Wikipedia end up validating the very Wikipedia entries that caused the error in the first place.
Fight for the Truth or Accept the Lie?
Mainstream news is held to a higher level of accountability than the internet – it has to be. We need to know that when we open a newspaper the essential facts will be correct. After all, news is one of the primary records of our society and the source of future history books. Do we want to create a fictional history for our descendants or should we assert our responsibility as guardians over our own written record?
So if mainstream media continues to move more and more to the internet for fact-checking and news gathering, how should we validate information on the net if the democratic model is faulty?
Either the internet has to achieve the same expectations we have for accuracy, or we must accept a news media below our current set of standards. You might believe that the solution is for news media to just stop using the internet for stories, but that would be a vain hope. We can’t prevent the internet from permeating other media and changing information gathering behaviour, so we must then ensure appropriate safe-guards are in place.
It is too easy to blame the media and put the whole responsibility for fixing this problem at their door. I think that is unfair. We already know from previous situations, where people have attempted to restrict or change online behaviour, that it never works. Music downloading is the biggest example. If attempts to restrict file-sharing have failed and businesses are now having to adapt their business models to the internet, it should be obvious to us now that user behaviour is fixed and the supplier (in this case, of information) must change in approach. Therefore, the internet has to adapt to the ways in which users – including news services – want to use it. We need to find more accurate ways of validating online information.
Now is the time to determine how the internet will inform us in the future – before practices become too entrenched. Is there a solution? Possibly. Stay tuned…