The conventional wisdom is that the Internet is making it easier than ever before to sort out the half-truths and “Frankenfacts” of our world. But what if that’s no longer the case? In an era of information abundance, when it is easy to contribute to the flow of information on the Internet, it’s also getting harder to distinguish fact from fiction. There’s simply too much information for our filters to process.
Which perhaps explains the boldness of both political parties throughout the entire 2012 campaign in stretching the truth. Both political parties adopted a new strategy: overload the system with half-truths, partial truths and untruths and hope that nobody has time to fact-check them all. Quite simply, the more information political parties can put out there on the Internet and the larger the variety of ways in which they can say it, the harder it will be for anyone to distinguish fact from fiction.
And it’s not just politics where this is happening. Take the recent example of Superstorm Sandy, where the abundance of images and data overwhelming us on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere on the Web made it difficult at times to sort out fact from fiction. The problem was compounded by the fact that many people were without power or cell phone service. They were quite literally “in the dark” when it came to processing information. Some of the fakes were easy to sniff out, such as photoshopped images of sharks swimming in the flood waters of the New Jersey coast. But others took longer to sort out, such as the rumor that Con Edison planned to turn off all power to New York City or that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded.
On the campaign trail, both presidential candidates have resorted to a political version of photoshopping images — even in the waning hours before the final votes are tallied. As a result, the political fact checker has played a more important role during this election than any in recent memory. But even these fact-checkers can only focus on what appear to be the most outlandish statements and most ridiculous assertions, leaving the rest to pass by, unfiltered and largely unchecked.
Quite simply, the amount of information on the Internet is starting to overwhelm our ability to filter it. We live in an era where the search for the truth often begins and ends with a Google search and where people mindlessly retweet things when told to “please retweet” — who really has time to check all this stuff out? Even Wikipedia, which many assume to be authoritative, is not immune from the ability of individuals to game the system and promote their own version of the truth.
For now, individual voices across the Internet have been remarkably effective in sorting out fact from fiction, but how much longer is that going to be the case? Some, such as Evgeny Morozov, have even argued that we’ve reached a point where the leading companies of the Internet need to take a more active role in helping us discern fact from fiction on the Web. But do we really want Google censoring its search results or Twitter attaching little red flags to tweets that may be inaccurate or under dispute?
On Election Day, the real risk is not that false information will call the results of the election into question, although, certainly, fake Instagram photos have the potential to appear on established news sites and rumors of voting irregularities could circulate around the Web (especially in the New York area, where many voting facilities will be makeshift at best in the aftermath of Sandy). Instead, the real risk is that the information that is already out there — the information that we are using to base our voting decision on — may have been inaccurate or just plain wrong from the very beginning.
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