Who’s News Can You Trust?
Many of us remember the old saying that “girls go to college to get more knowledge; boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” As childish and ridiculous as that old taunt is, there is a lot to be concerned about when it comes to the influence of Internet content on our society and on the shaping of our opinions and views of the world around us. It wasn’t that long ago, that information was provided through media outlets, with professional journalists and researchers that investigated, examined, and vetted information before airing it on national television or publishing into a newspaper. That was news that did not get lost in the noise of opinion, disinformation, irrelevant detail, and profiteering. Information provided to the public through this narrow, but at the time, trusted medium was informative, relevant, and to the point.
But alas, the world has changed. With the advent of the Internet, everyone could quickly and easily publish content and reach every corner of the world, instantly. Media outlets could get the news out in new and exciting ways. People all over the world suddenly were able to get information on any subject direct to their desktops. Additionally, anyone with a story to tell or a product to sell could instantly reach millions of consumers and so rose the era of the dot-com industry.
The modern day gold rush was the push to just get a business idea launched around a website and wait for investors to throw huge amounts of cash at them; and throw cash at them they did! While the dot-com bubble did eventually burst, the idea of making millions of dollars online did not.
In the early 2000’s there were less than 10 million total websites. Today, there are over 800 million. The Internet itself generates 6 percent of the U.S. economy, according to a study published by the Internet Association, a trade group representing the likes of Google, Airbnb, Facebook, and Amazon. Additionally, it is estimated that businesses which are directly involved with the Internet generated an estimated $966 billion in 2014.
Today, there are nearly endless ways to make money online and generate more revenue without any investment dollars or without a single product to sell. The game has shifted from a products and services marketplace to a data capturing cash and grab which is done by attracting visitors. More visitors attract advertisers and advertisers pay well to promote their products and services on these websites. Perhaps more valuable is the personal information that is captured on sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and countless others, where almost every personal characteristic is captured, stored, or even sold.
This web traffic is where the true opportunities lie for today’s Internet entrepreneur and what motivates these content creators to come up with anything that will drive more visitors to their sites. It’s the reason businesses can justify giving away free apps and the reason software developers create and freely release innovative websites such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s also the reason that thousands or perhaps millions of sites have sprung up posing as news outlets and product review sites. These content creators realize that the more content they create, the more likely they are to attract visitors to their site and subsequently more money. And therein lies the problem we have with today’s Internet and today’s more connected and “more informed” culture. There’s a real question and growing concern around the information we consume online as it is not subject to the kinds of checks and balances that once was the hallmark of responsible journalism.
There is an old saying in the IT industry that asks “Who is watching the watcher”? In the IT field it is common and sometimes necessary to trust that IT will do the responsible thing. We trust that they are not mishandling our data; we trust them when they tell us they are experts; we trust when there is a problem we do not understand that they know how to fix it; and we take them at their word when they say they are being honest and ethical. The reality however, is that many CEO’s and business leaders do not have the experience, interest or the patience to educate themselves well enough to keep IT honest. We trust they will do the right thing and act in an ethical manner but often there is really no way to know for sure. That said, in the real world, the threat to an individual’s employment, legal action, and reputation in the workforce can often be enough to act as the check and balance. When it is not, an outside technology consulting firm can be used to obtain a second opinion and become that trusted business partner.
The Internet is an entirely different ballgame, however. Websites can be put in place anonymously and the identity of those who post, contribute, develop, or own content can be completely invisible to the public. What we end up with is the problem we have today, which is a massive and almost infinite digital news and content library available at the world’s fingertips, that is driven by profit and has next to zero accountability. Where are the checks and balances here? Websites, news articles, blogs, and large corporations now chase the almighty dollar by posting news headlines that are misleading, completely false, or designed to generate clicks for the sole purpose of making money from advertising partners.
What is more troublesome is that individuals become loyal to many of these sites and too lazy, too ignorant, or too apathetic to do any research before posting their memes to Facebook, or rambling on at the Thanksgiving table about the illegitimacy of science or making reference to some obscure and completely false political statement. It’s this kind of misinformation and deliberate intent to dwindle down facts into a phrase, a soundbite, or a limited number of characters that is contributing to an increase in what I would call well informed ignorance.
And so we end with the title of this piece: “Girls go to college to get more knowledge; boys use the Internet to get less intelligent”.
Will this become the new schoolyard taunt of future generations?