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Is the Internet Trustworthy?

I used to think this State Farm Insurance commercial with the less-than-intelligent woman saying, “they can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true,” was funny until I started reading Wild West 2.0 by attorneys Michael Fertik and David Thompson. (See below for commercial.)

Fertik and Thompson have penned a phrase called “the Google Truth” that is anything but funny. For those of us in the crisis and reputation business, this book sheds a whole new light on the gullibility of people who seek information online. It seems the gal from the commercial above represents the average person’s idea of how reliable internet information really is.

The point that sticks with me most so far in the book has to do with the perceived neutrality of computers, and thus Google. According to the authors, search engines have no conscience. They are neither immoral or moral, they are amoral.

This might seem like a good thing until you take into account the whole truth of that statement. Because search engines are amoral, they do not have the ability to distinguish truth from lie. In other words, if search engine results are dominated by lies and bad information, it is perceived as truth. Search results are based on popularity, not truth. As the authors write:

“The key is that Google’s process is completely automated and that it interprets 'popularity' as the main measure of importance of a page. It does not consider whether a page is truthful, accurate, or fair, instead the computer simply asks whether the page is popular.”

When popularity is the base for truth, we have a problem. They continue:

“Moral abstention can have profound impacts on personal reputation. Unfounded attacks may quickly rise to the top of search results because any controversy will tend to create the appearance of popularity.”

Anonymity, which is popular on the internet, adds an element of “social distance.” Research shows us that social distance increases the chances people will act in a negative fashion. Add these together and you have volatile fuel for trouble.

Last week, a sports reporter calling himself John Allen succeeded in fooling the national sports scene by claiming to have insider information that fueled wrongful reports of Major League Baseball trades all over the internet. Trusted national sports reporters were fooled by the fake reports and some later expressed disgust that somebody would do such a thing. News flash: there is a sense of exhilaration that comes with this sort of lying behavior. It’s fun to fool people who should know better—at least in some circles.

We’ve seen this time and again in recent years. Mainstream news organizations are misled by their need to be first rather than their need to be right.John Allen says he’ll be back. How many more reporters and fans can he fool?

So what is the answer?  Trust credible sources only? What if they’re listening to John Allen? Is the internet trustworthy? Definitely not. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Your thoughts are welcome. I do recommend picking up a copy of Wild West 2.0. It will sharpen your understanding of the internet’s ability to wreak havoc. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best: “Controversy equalizes fools and wise men…and the fools know it.”

thumbnail image: "Feast of Fools" by Bruegel

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