The internet is, without doubt, a wonderful invention. The ability to have a vast array of facts, figures, opinions, research and information at your fingertips almost instantly, from all across the planet, is something which seemed like pure science fiction only 30 years ago.
And with it brings the possibility of a huge Golden Era of human knowledge, learning and growth. There has never before been such an enormous wealth of information at our fingertips. It is easier than ever to research into any topic imaginable, looking around for the different view, different bodies of evidence, take part in discussions, and learn about things previous generations could only dream about. This allows us to all become very well-rounded in our knowledge about whatever topic is of interest, digging for the underlying data, cross-checking sources and references like never before. All of which leads to a fa greater wealth of knowledge for everyone.
Alas, it turns out that this Golden Age of Knowledge is not happening. Indeed, we are in real danger of descending into a Tarnished Age of Ignorance.
Because all too often, people will accept and spread any random piece of information they see on the internet, believing it to be unequivocally true without any evidence, simply because someone said it on Facebook and it fits with their existing views.
If a random stranger came up to you on the street and said “Cinnamon will cure cancer”, would you blindly accept it because a random stranger told you? Probably not. Post a pretty picture on the internet saying the same thing and people take it as gospel without question, because hey it says so on the internet so it must be true! (Actually, it isn’t)
I recall shortly after the Fukushima incident, there was a picture doing the rounds showing how radiation from the damaged plant had covered the entire Pacific already and was hitting the shores of the USA, Australia, and anywhere bordering the Pacific. Quickly that circulated unquestioned by those who wanted to believe it, and who did so without doing any checking of their own.
Only, the problem was, the picture which was circulating ACTUALLY showed the height of the tsunami generated by the undersea earthquake. Interesting…
Why are so many people so ready to be gullible (hey, did you know that they have actually removed the word gullible from the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary?) and believe something a random stranger posts? Because it fits with their existing views. It’s called Confirmation Bias – the tendency to readily accept without question something presented if it fits one’s existing view of the world. And with the internet, it is easy to find things which do just that, and to spread them as gospel unchecked. And they perceive legitimacy to the information because it says its true on the internet.
Pick any position on anything. Anything at all. Have a look online and you will find someone somewhere claiming that position to be true. There are even sites on the internet which claim, in all seriousness, that the world is flat. Does that make it true because it says so online? No.
So what can you do as an individual? Next time you see a claim, question it. Do some research. Dig around a little. Even if (indeed especially if!) it already fits your perceived views. There is a wealth of information out there, covering every viewpoint on every topic. Do some checking, sift through it, come to a balanced conclusion. Don’t just blindly accept that Pope Francis said “All religions are true” (he didn’t) just because someone posts a picture or quote online!
Very often, it takes a matter of seconds to check the accuracy of something. Thee are entire sites out there dedicated to fact-checking the latest rumours, Facebook claims, chain emails etc. Check them out before spreading potential nonsense. Best of all, many of these sites list their references so if in doubt, check this out too. There’s a vast amount of knowledge, information and figures out there, and you have a brain – use them! Ask questions, do a little digging, question whether what is being said matches the evidence being presented. Who knows, you may find you learn something new!
Some sources to get you started include
- Hoax Slayer
- Wikipedia (yes, I know, it is publicly editable and can contain complete fabrications, but it also lists references which are useful springboards)
- Google or Bing or Yahoo (spending upon your preference)
Remember that anyone posting anything online, as in the real world, has their own agenda (yes, I include myself in that – don’t take what I write as gospel, check it out too). Not everyone posts all the facts – believe it or not, there are sites which massage at a, leave out facts, and present a biased position. Think for yourself and double-check everything. You’ll lean a whole lot more about the world in the process, and that surely has to be a good thing.
Then again, as Abraham Lincoln said, “If it’s on the internet then it must be true and you can’t question it“. I know he said that, because I saw it written on the internet. They even had a photo to go with it, so it MUST be true!