Bull, Bunk and Baloney: How the Internet Has Us Fooled

It’s a maxim every kid born into the Digital Era has been hearing since day one. Even those whose earliest memories are of Netscape and Dial-Up and who could scarcely have dreamed of the cornucopic content-buffet that is today’s internet have been warned time and time again: don’t believe everything you read online. Teachers don’t accept Wikipedia citations as credible sources; the phrase “I read it on the internet somewhere” will get you nothing but eye-rolls, and do little to further your point.

But despite the entrenchment of these wise words, it seems we just can’t help ourselves. According to Nathaniel Barr, a professor of Creativity and Creative Thinking at University of Waterloo, people today have more access to information than ever before- the problem is, a lot of it is just plain not true. Whether incomplete, inaccurate, nonsensical, or just plain made up, we face an Augean Stable’s worth of bullshit on a daily basis. But the problem with bullshit information is that it doesn’t smell, and we don’t always recognize the muck we’ve waded into for what it truly is.

Bullshit can be harmless, sure- if someone wants to claim in a comment thread on some board somewhere that they totally met Bill Murray or that eating pure coconut oil every day will burn fat- well, okay. There’s not much to be done to stop them, and small fry commentary of that type stands little chance of convincing or misleading anybody too badly. It just contributes to noise buildup.

The problem starts as the audience gets bigger. At this point, we need to ask an important question: who is spreading the bullshit? Unfortunately, to point the finger of blame here would require a few extra arms.

Celebrities are one notable source — especially as they increasingly make the leap from chased-down and reported-on to maintaining their own websites and accessible social profiles (or having them maintained it their name, under their brand). We already have an inclination to believe that popular media figures have secret springs of wisdom within them — they’re so successful, after all, and good-looking; where there’s envy, there’s a desire to acquire their secrets. And so we land ourselves with occasionally awful advice, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s now infamously laughable lifestyle tips, to public personalities like Dr. Oz peddling untested remedies like they were the philosopher’s stone.

But of course, it’s the nature of the Democratic Internet ™ and the diverse social, content-promoting platforms it offers that ordinary people like you or me have a shot at spreading our very hogwash. Equal Opportunity Bullshit ™ anyone?

Well- not quite. For anything to gain traction on the internet at this point, it’s going to need a little something extra. Whether you’re hoping to promote a story you found, your work, or yourself, you won’t make it big on the web without a bit of pandering to public interest (but hey, that’s just how democracy works these days, isn’t it?) Shareability is a huge part of content-production these days. And the impetus towards shareability creates a breeding ground for bullshit; high-impact, high-emotion, simplified to the point of easy digestibility, and the more sensational the better. And there’s no reason to expect your average person to care much about what misinformation they might be spreading- attention can be addictive, after all. Why tell the truth when stretching it gets more likes?

And it’s not only individuals catching on to what shares and tailoring their social profiles and stories accordingly. News sites are getting in on the action, if only as a way to survive and attract an audience. That means not only changing how news and content are presented- with brevity and pith, tailored for smartphones and short attention spans — but also collected, favouring speed and engaging new voices. Today’s pundits hail from social media; today’s reliable sources are often challenged or disproved almost immediately. Social media feeds into news, news feeds into social media, and advertisers feed and feed off everyone- it’s a feedback loop that doesn’t lend itself well to veracity.

So who can we trust online? Everyone’s shouting at once and few are going to stop and consider the consequences of what’s being shared. We’re past the point where we can sincerely expect ethically reported stories from journalists needing their jobs, much less clickbait-happy millennials newly hired at Buzzfeed or Instagram models fiending for a following. It would be nice to trust in the news, but that’s not the reality we’ve built online. It’s up to readers to be discerning, and to at least wait for the thinkpieces on the twitter wars to start cropping up before forming a solid opinion on anything too important posted online. Grab a shovel, Hercules.

Issues: Trust/Accuracy/Authenticity/ Ethics

New Media: Social Media Other than Facebook

Article: “Most of What We Read Online is Quantifiably Bullshit”

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