Where does your information come from? Is what you know what you want to know, what others want you to know, or the “truth”? When it comes to the information you rely on to shape your important decisions, is your info credible, or cow pies?
Up until the launch of the Internet, information was what the information providers wanted it to be–the newspapers, the textbook publishers, the radio, movie, and TV producers. What we knew was what we were told, but what we were told was supposedly accurate and truthful. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that we as a nation began to realize that what we were being told wasn’t syncing up with what we were experiencing in real life. With the emergence of investigative reporters and the civil rights movement, cracks began to appear in the information dam, cracks that have since split wide open thanks to the Internet.
How we get our information has evolved from word of mouth (a slow and primarily localized distribution network), to the advent of the printing press (permitting large scale dissemination of information and ideas, so long as you were educated enough to be able to read), to television (whereby a select number of major broadcasting companies and advertisers brought information they wanted you to know right into your living room), to now the Internet (enabling people around the world to not only have free access to massive amounts of information, but to interact with it).
The most remarkable thing about the Internet is that it’s the great equalizer when it comes to providing access to information that previously you had to go to a college or university to get or be a privileged “insider.” The downside is that you can’t trust the information you find there. For the first time, there are no gatekeepers to at least try to ensure that the information we find is factual or true.
Surveys show that people still get their news from cable television more than any other source, starting with the big players FOX and CNN, followed by local broadcast news, then the Internet. Yet, due to the increasing use of the Internet, this factual chow line is shifting more to cyberspace. Our 24-hour cable news shows have been accused of being biased and pandering to ad revenue dollars. So now “real” people are able to post on the Internet “real” information from around the world. News programs are even inviting the public to send them stories, pictures and videos to use. As a result, exactly what constitutes “truth” is changing as the Internet has allowed people to “personalize” their news and information gathering experience. But does “real” equal true?
For the first time, we can decide for ourselves what information we want to know, but, also for the first time, anybody can be a self-proclaimed expert. An unsettling number of people believe that if they read it or watch it on the Internet, it must be true. Search engines are blindly serving up endless links to information that looks credible, but is it? Wikipedia is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Hailed as the encyclopedia of the people, anyone can contribute to it and edit it. It looks authoritative, but it’s not. Even founders of Wikipedia caution users that before they use the information for anything important, they need to keep in mind the information may not be true. Hundreds of “edits” are being made every second, without any control, oversight, or verification. What is considered to be “fact” is now becoming a matter of opinion rather than certainty.
So, how do people know what to believe when making decisions? Despite all the “factual” claims and “authorities” found on the Internet, studies show more people trust the comments made by other people on social media like Facebook and Twitter than they do the news or ads. Opinion and review sites are exploding in popularity as a source for the “truth.” As a result, companies are now hiring people and companies to fabricate favorable reviews and testimonials. Twitter feeds are creeping onto the screen of news and reality TV shows. Viewer ratings and surveys are controlling content. Communication has come full circle — back to “word of mouth” spread by posts, tweets, and viral videos as the most trusted source of information. But saying something is true doesn’t make it true.
The awful “truth” is that “truth” has now been replaced by “truthiness,” a term popularized by Steven Colbert on his comedy show, The Colbert Report. It describes when a person considers a concept or fact to be true, because they feel it in their gut, not due to any evidence, logic, or intellectual examination of facts. It’s preferring to believe what concepts or facts you want to believe are true, rather than concepts or facts verifiably known to be true. Merriam-Webster named truthiness as their 2006 Word of the Year, at least that’s what it says on Wikipedia.
Your personal truth is the result of the collection of information you choose to accept. When you don’t care about the source of your information, about its credibility or genuineness, you open yourself up to being manipulated. The old adage that knowledge is power has evolved into a new axiom – misinformation is power.
Something isn’t true just because you want it to be true, even if all your friends or the majority of people want to believe it’s true, too. You have a responsibility to yourself to investigate the information you get. Before you blindly accept what statistics show, find out how the survey was done, with how many people, and who funded it. Before you believe what you read on a website, check out the “About” page and get an idea of just who is behind the site and what is their agenda. Go ahead and use Wikipedia, but don’t trust it. Use it as a general overview to help guide you on where to look for actual authoritative sources. And try not to mistake opinion or speculation for truth or fact, just because you agree with it and want it to be so.
If everything is true, then nothing is true. Facts become distorted when emotions and opinions replace logic and evidence. It’s fine to have and share opinions, but true facts have no feelings. Before you accept the information you get, are you taking the time to sort out the truth from the opinion, the fact from the fabrication?