Charles Mueller & Jennifer Buss
Do you trust everything you read on the Internet? No, ok. Do you scour the first couple hits on Google until you find a source that you believe is reputable? That reputation has never mattered more than in today’s world because the level of competition for the public’s attention has never been greater. In order to respond to this demand, our information generation and delivery processes have become focused on being the first to grab the public’s attention. In order to be first, many sacrifice the accuracy of the information they produce, and because modern technology has enabled information to be spread at unprecedented rates, this results in misinformation and inconsistent “facts” becoming mainstream common knowledge; the truth is becoming harder to find.
A recent example of this occurred when Rolling Stone reported on a girl who claimed she was gang-raped at a UVA at a fraternity party. The story only reported the perspective of the female involved and did virtually nothing to corroborate her story. Rolling Stone has recently come forward explaining that their original report no longer agrees with the facts that have since emerged. This error forces the conversation away from the fact that UVA has a poor history of properly dealing with rape issues. Rolling Stone should feel absolutely humiliated. Maintaining a good reputation and trustworthiness in journalism requires good detective work, but in this instance, it looked like the author didn’t even try. If journalists can’t verify the events from the sources, they aren’t doing their job (i.e. reporting the facts to the public).
This situation has exposed a problem with our information delivery systems, a problem where the truth is sacrificed for personal gain. We’ve seen this problem with Internet reporting of current events; in the scientific literature regarding the creation of stem cells from skin cells; in medicine with the claims that vaccines cause autism; and in the 2008 global financial crisis. What matters most now is no longer the truth. The most important objective is giving your audience what they want because that is what they pay for. We are pressuring scientists to produce revolutionary results instead of encouraging them to think freely and incentivizing journalists to entertain us rather than report on the facts. What are going to be the long-term consequences of putting these types of pressures on the professionals that produce information in our society?
In the days where the newspaper reined supreme, there was less disagreement among society about the facts surrounding an issue. In the digital age, where the accuracy of information is questionable and availability of different perspectives is unprecedented, the amount of disagreement among the facts can only broaden. While a diversity of opinion is essential for a democratic society, too much diversity, especially when it’s spawned through misinformation, can only damage society. The opinions built on misinformation are only going to increase as technology continues to make it easier to access and generate information. To counter this trend, we need to start mandating trustworthy sources, validating our news, changing the monetary value in publishing, and modifying the current system to focus less about the individual and more on the greater good. Applications like Checkdesk attempt to do this, but more is needed. It is time to take action, combat this reality head-on, and restore confidence in our information generation and delivery processes. The truth in the Digital Age is already hard enough to find.