The Internet has always been a bit of a funhouse if you know where to look (Hey, look, it’s 500-foot Big Osama!). But something fundamentally changes when our elected representatives in Washington start getting in on the game. The current Internet zeitgeist, which favors irony mixed with sharable bits of content that can go viral quickly, almost demands the constant creation of clever, new digital tools. The latest of these are new text-to-speech iPhone apps that allow the user to, quite literally, insert words into the mouths of President Obama or former President Bush by using publicly available voice samples. Forget everything you thought you knew about the political views of any candidate, they’ll tell you something completely different. And, in case you were wondering, you can easily forward these clips to your friends.
Not only is it easier than ever to fabricate news and information, these “fake” items are able to travel across the Web with unprecedented speed, due to the ease of sharing across any social network. Once a viral Internet meme hits Facebook and its 750 million members, a message can be distributed effortlessly to thousands of people at one time. Since the message is coming from a friend, it has all the appearance of Fact (with a capital F). ”Like” it on Facebook or re-tweet it on Twitter and a fake Martin Luther King Jr. quote can be sent zooming around the Internet until some intrepid fact-checkers finally puts an end to it. If you haven’t heard yet, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic finally determined that the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — used by millions of people across Facebook and Twitter to comment on the death of Osama Bin Laden — was not entirely accurate.
If anything, the hard work of fact-checking what’s real and what’s fake is only compounded by the GoogleMakes You Stupid-approach to getting information. This entails typing a few words into Google and churning out an answer, or perhaps defaulting to a Wikipedia entry created by the “crowd.” When it comes to search results, if it’s not on the first page of results, people often won’t see it. Fact, if you know how to work with it, can be buried on the second page, or better yet, on the third page of results. Fact can also be, perhaps unknowingly, changed by a wiki editor in a different country. Using anonymous profiles and avatars, it is quite possible that you may never have to divulge your true identity while commenting on articles that may eventually influence the direction of the next election.
It doesn’t end there.
Further complicating our ability to discern fact from fiction is what TED speaker Eli Pariser has called "The Filter Bubble." In short, it is becoming increasingly likely that you will only get news from people just like you, who have similar interests and similar Web usage patterns. These are also the same people who are less likely to present the opposite side of a debate or challenge your views on life, the economy or politics. If you have certain political views, do you want to read dissenting viewpoints on Facebook or Google+, or do you want to read more of the same opinions, to reinforce your own views? With so much information available online, the current consensus is that you want to filter this information as much as possible, and that inevitably results in information filtered according to your tastes, interests and behaviors.
The Filter Bubble, the ease of sharing content across social networking sites (even if it’s false), and our collective decision to delegate fact-checking functions to the crowd — all of these are able to work in concert due to the anonymity of Web culture. Remember that famous cartoon from the first Web boom: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog"? Indeed, and even more so today. Nowadays it may even be possible for a Gay Girl in Damascus to be a middle-aged married guy studying in the United Kingdom, or a Japanese pop sensation to be nothing more than a digitally-generated fake. Let’s just hope that, in 2012, our elected representatives are who they claim to be on the Web.
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