Stop Spreading Manure

It’s an example of yet another brouhaha. A report a few years ago that Google blatantly admitted that you should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever when using their services. The internet went crazy. Many sources seemed to say, “How outrageous! We told you so! Google is evil!” Mainstream news outlets picked up stories from smaller publishers and they all seemed to confirm the entire sordid mess.

Except the internet was wrong. Manure, to use a polite term, was being spread far, wide, and fast.

That’s where things get complicated.

Everyone has an agenda

In the popular television series House, Dr. Gregory House is often quoted as saying, “Everyone lies.”

On the internet, a similar statement can be made: everyone has an agenda.

Every website, news organization, and person sending an email, publishing a newsletter, or just posting a comment has an agenda of some sort. They have something they want you to do, think, or become.

All too often the agenda being promoted is … inconsistent (for lack of a better word) … with reality.

In other words, the information you present is almost always colored by your agenda. People highlight facts that support a particular agenda, conveniently minimizing or completely ignoring facts that don’t. In the worst case, people fabricate “facts” to support their agenda.

Yes: not everyone, but some people, actually lie. Perhaps more often than you think.

To be honest, we all do it. Not lie, that is (I would hope) — but we color what we say and do with the data that supports our beliefs and opinions, often to the exclusion of objective evidence that might point out the unthinkable …

… we might be wrong.

If it’s on the internet, it must be …

There’s an interesting and actually somewhat strange conflict in common culture these days.

Most people realize that “If it’s on the internet, it must be true” is a sarcastic falsism to express just how inaccurate information on the internet can be. Just because it’s published on a website somewhere (or shows up in your inbox, on Facebook, or wherever), doesn’t make it true.

However, I would wager that most people actually do believe most of what they read on the internet. Those same people that smile knowingly at that falsism and claim to agree with it will often run out and believe the strangest, most bizarre, completely false things, as long as the information is presented in a way that makes them seem credible.

They do it without thinking, or seeing the irony in their behavior.

From what I’ve seen, this is getting worse.

We believe what we want to believe

There are a couple of terms that help explain, at least in part, why that might be.

Confirmation bias is the natural tendency we all have to believe things that confirm what we already believe and dismiss what doesn’t. Confirmation bias can be as simple as dismissing alternative viewpoints out of hand, and as horrific as being tried and arrested for expressing beliefs that are not commonly accepted (think Galileo).

The problem with confirmation bias, as Galileo so clearly illustrates, is that it often stands in the way of the truth.

Put another way, we believe what we want to believe. We believe those things that match our own world view and our own agenda,whether or not we are right.

The echo chamber is a term we’ve been hearing more and more in recent years. It’s the tendency of information sources — most notably news media — to repeat each other. In a sense, they use each other as sources. The problem is that a story that originates from a single source — be it true or false — can appear to have massive objective confirmation when we start hearing that same story from a variety of supposedly independent sources.

Those sources aren’t independent at all — they’re just repeating what they heard from each other.

And it all started from a single source …

… a source with an agenda.

50 shades of gray

Things get more complicated still.

We desperately want things to be simple. We want things to be true or false, black or white, right or wrong.

Good or evil.

It’s much easier to comprehend “true” and “false” than it is to deal with the potential uncertainty of “mostly true”, “kind of wrong”, or something inbetween. Unlike whether the sun circles the earth or the other way around, the issues that we deal with, talk about, and even rant about are rarely so simple as to have easy yes/no, black or white answers.

The folks who write headlines and push agendas know that thinking is hard for many of us. They know that black and white is easier, and (bonus!) much more sensational. So, they simply pick and choose the “facts” that support black-and-white thinking at the exclusion of the significantly more nuanced truth.

About that Google privacy thing

One source repeated a thousand times in a thousand places doesn’t make it a thousand sources.

So is your email private with Google or not?

It’s not that simple. It’s still not a yes-or-no answer.

And yet:

Even though some sites posted clarifications and/or updates, they’re often did so too late (the misinformation has spread) or did too little (the “clarifications” remain biased to the pre-existing story or overall agenda).

Email privacy, and privacy on the internet in general, is a critically important concept. Services like Gmail do process your email to do things like serve related ads that pay for the free service, or populate indexes so you can search your email quickly. Are there teams of people sitting behind computer monitors reading your email? Almost certainly not.

However, unless you encrypt your email, it is by definition fundamentally not secure. This is nothing new.

And yet, in the pursuit of clicks, page views, and furthering anti-Google sentiment, some sources pick and choose what to present, and then sensationalize how they present it.

You. Must. Think.

So what’s the solution?

You. You are the solution. You and I and everyone we know must — and I really do mean must — become more skeptical and more demanding of our news and information sources.

You and I must THINK about what we read. We need to learn to identify the sources and understand the agendas those sources might have that color what it is they present and how they present it.

We need to learn to draw our own conclusions.

Whenever you accept misleading or inaccurate stories as truth, you’ve been manipulated to serve someone else’s agenda. And when you pass those manipulative stories on to friends, family, and acquaintances? Well, my friend, you’ve just turned into a virtual manure spreader.

Because manure is what it is.

Be skeptical.

If it sounds outrageous — even if it supports your beliefs — there’s a hefty chance that it’s completely bogus. Overly sensational or outrageous-sounding headlines or content are a hallmark of bogus stories.

Do a little research. Check and verify the sources — follow the trail. If they all point back to a single source (or no source at all), realize what you’re looking at. One source repeated a thousand times in a thousand places doesn’t make it a thousand sources.

In the past, we could count on the media to do fact- and source-checking for us, but that’s clearly and simply no longer true. In the race for media outlets to publish anything quickly, the effort to make sure it’s actually accurate has apparently been left behind.

Collateral damage: legitimate news and important issues

One of the truly sad casualties of all the misinformation on the internet is how difficult it has become to find the truth …

… and how difficult it is for accurate and important news and information to get the attention it truly deserves.

It’s all lost in the noise: covered in manure.

In the non-profit world has a term: “donor fatigue”. This applies to potential contributors who, while supporting a particular cause or organization, simply become tired of getting asked for money, time, or whatever repeatedly.

The same is true here.

Call it “manure fatigue”. It would be tempting to completely disregard anything found on the internet as likely being bogus.

Unfortunately, there are legitimate outrages, atrocities, and issues of privacy that really do deserve our attention and our understanding.

It just takes some skepticism, and some thought, to separate the wheat from the fertilizer.

This essay originally appeared on Ask Leo! where I help people use technology more effectively, giving them the confidence to do more, be more, and explore more of the world that today’s technology makes available to us all.

My agenda? My agenda is simple: I want you to be more skeptical before you believe what you see on the internet, and I want you to stop spreading misinformation. I’d love for this essay to go viral and garner more Ask Leo! newsletter subscribers and site visitors, as well as improving my site’s reputation with Google. I have a large agenda. And don’t think for a moment that other sites, services, and individuals don’t have agendas that are as large or larger.

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