What is the Internet and Can It be Trusted?
Recently, an old friend asked me if I use the Internet for work-related research. "Of course," I answered. "How can you trust what's on there?" she asked. "Isn't a lot of the information wrong, or just made up?
She sounded terribly uninformed and so ten years ago (note: the phrase "so [fill in time frame] ago" is so two years ago, and I promise to phase it out). Each day, millions, maybe billions, of people use and rely on the Internet, often without thinking twice about the medium they are utilizing. We have come a long way in ten or fifteen years.
However, my friend's questions caused me to step back and think, what is the Internet really? Strictly speaking, the Internet is a network of millions of interconnected computers, along with software, common language and protocols that, together, form the most powerful form of mass communication in human history.
But the Internet is several things. First, as my friend was apparently alluding to, the Internet is a forum where bloggers, commenters and others write whatever they want, and state things as facts, with no accountability other than their online reputation. However, the Internet is also the world's largest public library, containing everything from medical papers presented in Switzerland to the instructions you have long lost on how to change the ring tone on your Razr. Additionally, the Internet is the world's largest newsstand, containing scanned and reprinted articles from newspapers, magazines and other publications, as well as original content by well-known journalists at sites such as The Huffington Post. The Internet is the world's most gargantuan information kiosk, where one can easily find local weather forecasts, movie theater and television schedules, and a map showing how to get to a trendy new restaurant. The Internet is also the world's biggest shopping mall, where most retail businesses have a presence allowing us to purchase airline tickets, televisions, cars, movie tickets, and just about everything else.
Today, millions of people do things on the Internet, such as banking, renewing car registrations, and contributing to Ron Paul's campaign, that they used to do by telephone, mail or in person. So what does it mean when someone asks, "how can you rely on what you read on the Internet?" If I check my local weather at The Weather Channel's website, is the result less reliable than tuning in to The Weather Channel on television or checking the weather listings printed the night before in my local newspaper? If I read an online column by Frank Rich at nytimes.com, should I be more skeptical about its authenticity than if I read the same column in the paper version of the New York Times? If I trade stocks online at the Charles Schwab website, should I assume that the amount listed in my account is inaccurate, or that the trade did not go through?
The answer to most of these questions is, of course not. So what of those areas of the Internet, including the blogosphere, where people freely exchange thoughts and ideas, and where, as my friend alluded, lies and misinformation abound? That's the same as if someone had asked me whether I rely on information I hear in the public square or around the office water cooler, or whether I believe tabloid headlines such as "Bigfoot Stole My Wife." On the Internet and elsewhere, fact gatherers must diligently check purported facts, corroborate them with additional sources, and use time-tested methods to weed out untrue statements.
I also tell my friend that it's necessary to rely on one's internal b.s. detector. Long before the Internet became popular, we were warned by the cliche "don't believe everything you read." Every good research professional, including journalists, attorneys and economists, needs to heed that warning no matter where they are gathering their facts.
I call it a b.s. detector. Others call it a gut instinct. As far as I can tell, the Internet has not changed the need to have a good one.