Daniel W. Drezner

Does the Internet cure falsehoods?

Over the weekend WikiLeaks pulled a pretty silly prank.  Through a combination of some savvy Web design and hacking, the organization managed to convince some people that former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller had written an op-ed column.  In the fake column, fake Keller claimed the Times was under threat of a financial blockade ...

Over the weekend WikiLeaks pulled a pretty silly prank.  Through a combination of some savvy Web design and hacking, the organization managed to convince some people that former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller had written an op-ed column.  In the fake column, fake Keller claimed the Times was under threat of a financial blockade for publishing the Wikileaks cables — a blockade that Wikileaks itself is experiencing (hence the motivation). 

The prank managed to fool some of the people for a short time, including the New York Times’ chief technology reporter.  Just as quickly, however, the fact that the column was a hoax also spread.  For Glenn Greenwald, this is evidence that the Internet is actually a superior fact-checking entity than the traditional mainstream media used to be:

[E]rrors and frauds have a very short life-span on the Internet. The power to tap into collective knowledge and research is so much more potent than being confined to a single journalistic outlet. The ability to have one’s work take the form of a mass dialogue, rather than a stagnant monologue, is incredibly valuable. It is true that the Internet can be used to disseminate falsehoods quickly, but it just as quickly roots them out and exposes them in a way that the traditional model of journalism and its closed, insular, one-way form of communication could never do….

For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just follow the excellent suggestion this morning from Alexa O’Brien: just compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism. Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic. More recently, consider the fraud of Iraqi WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance propagated by the nation’s leading traditional media outlets, or the fraudulent story they perpetrated of how grateful Iraqis spontaneously pulled down the Saddam statue,, or the fraudulent tales they told of Jessica Lynch engaging in a heroic firefight with menacing Iraqis and Pat Tillman standing up to Al Qaeda fighters before they gunned him down. And that’s to say nothing of the Jayson-Blair-type of rogue, outright fabrications.

Those frauds were vastly more harmful than anything the Internet has produced. And they took far longer to expose. That’s because they were disseminated by stagnant, impenetrable media outlets which believe only in talking to themselves and trusting only government sources. Nobody can get away with that on the Internet. The voices are far more diversified, the scrutiny is far more rigorous, the feedback is much more rapid, and the process is much more democratized. Yes, the Internet enabled a fake Bill Keller column to fool some people for a few hours, but — through the work of journalists, experts, and anonymous, uncredentialed users alike — it also immediately exposed the hoax, documented how it happened, and drew rapid lessons from it. The prime lesson is not that Internet journalism is more prone to errors; it’s that it is far more adept and agile at detecting and banishing them.

I’ve made arguments like this one in the past on the blog, so I’m pretty sympthetic to Greenwald’s thesis that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created.  I’d also agree than in a pre-web era, the negative ramifications of mainstream media errors were far greater. 

There is another category to consider, however, which is "myths" — and here the Internet has juuuust a bit of a problem.  Despite copious amounts of evidence, for example, a disturbingly large number of people believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — and the web is a friendly place for their beliefs.  The same could be said with arguments about whether global warming is a hoax or vaccines cause autism.  Furthermore, simple rebuttals aren’t always so simple.  Consider this Conservapedia entry on Barack Obama

Obama claims to have been born in Hawaii to Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. – who had married just six months prior – on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii.[11] Some contend that this story is a complete fabrication. After many leading conservatives including the leadership of this site and Donald Trump called for Obama to release his birth certificate he did on April 27. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona conducted an investigation of the Obama’s eligibility and alleged that the "birth certificate" was a fake; however, no charges have been filed. Obama was reportedly assigned a social security number whose area code was assigned to applications coming from zip codes in Connecticut.[12]

Barack Obama Sr. was not a citizen of the United States. At the time of Obama’s birth, Kenya was a British colony, meaning that Obama Sr not only held British citizenship, but passed it on to his son. When Kenya gained independence, Obama and his father both lost British citizenship and gained Kenyan citizenship. Barack Obama was a dual citizen of the United States and Kenya until his Kenyan citizenship automatically expired in 1984, as he had failed to renounce US nationality and swear loyalty to Kenya. Despite having been born with US citizenship through his mother, it has been argued that as he was born with dual nationality, he is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and thus constitutionally ineligible to become President.

Now, to my knowledge, there is nothing factually incorrect with those two paragraphs.  Rather, it’s factually incomplete — there is little discussion of facts in evidence that prove Obama is a natural-born U.S. citizen.  It’s simply written in such a way to allow those individuals predisposed to believe Obama is not an American to draw that conclusion.  This is consistent with Cass Sunstein’s argument that the Internet allows people to selectively filter the information they acquire such that their ideologies do not face a rigorous challenge. 

This kind of information problem existed before the internet, as anyone familiar with Ron Paul’s newsletters could tell you.  What the Internet permits is an amplification of conspiracy theories that can attract pockets of people that otherwise would never bother to organize.  In a traditional mainstream media environment, it was possible to shoot down any zany conspiracy theory that bubbled up to the surface through more authoritative reporting.  Some people were likely to persist in believing the myth — but they were less likely to articulate those beliefs to a wide audience. 

I suspect — and let me stress that this is nothing more than an untested hypothesis — that speed of transmission is the key variablesthat determines whether the Internet acts as a myth buster or a myth booster.  For "facts" that spread like wildfire, the Internet should work well as a fact-checking engine.  In these moments when there is a great demand for verification, the information ecosystem responds to the "fire alarm" by taking the data point and examining it to within an inch of its life.  The more pervasive the "fact" appears on the web, the greater the supply of people who can likely fact-check it. 

The problem comes with slower-moving facts — those arguments or statements that are so "out there" that no significant online media would bother to check out until and unless it attracts a large number of devotees.  Myths and conspiracies that spread unchecked for a significant period of time are likely harder to root out.  If myths are given time to grow, then devotees to those myths can also develop defense mechanisms to rebut attempts at fact-checking.  Paradoxically, this kind of myth is more likely to take root if it spreads slowly, requiring a "police patrol" of the Internet to find it.  By the time it is doused with "the truth," there are people who have bought into the myth with sufficient psychological investment that they can tolerate a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. 

So , to repeat myself, I agree with Greenwald that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created.  The problem isn’t with the fast-moving memes, however — it’s with the slow-moving ones.  

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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