THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Everything on the Internet Is a Lie
If you pay nothing for news, you get what you pay for
"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." —Christopher Hitchens
If you were walking along a city street and a complete stranger handed you an unwrapped sandwich and said, "Eat this, it's free", would you eat it? Or would your natural tendency to avoid food that might make you sick overwhelm the momentary gratification of getting a free meal?
If a car then pulled up alongside you, the passenger window rolled down and the driver, who was entirely unknown to you, said, "Get in, the ride is free," would you get in? Or would your genetically programmed instinct for self-preservation keep you from risking your safety for the sake of getting something for nothing?
If someone at the next corner handed you a leaflet vaguely resembling a newspaper, which was clearly not published by any recognizable company or organization, and said, "Read this, it's free," would you read it? Or would your inbred skepticism induce you to throw it in the next trash bin you passed on the sidewalk?
The only reason the third scenario may not seem analogous with the first two is because we are far more keenly attuned to dangers against our physical health and security than those to our minds and modes of thought. Some people undoubtedly would eat the sandwich anyway, and some assuredly still rely on hitchhiking to get around. But the vast majority of us would gag at the mere thought of swallowing a bit of that sandwich, much as we shake our heads in wonder at the foolishness of the hitchhiker in an unending era of casual violence (and hope our own children never do anything so dangerous). Even if you took a moment to peruse the free leaflet, whether or not it actually contained any interesting or convincing information, you would scarcely believe that you had compromised your well-being by reading an anonymous screed of unknown origin.
And yet, every time you go online and read anything — ANYTHING — you have no way of knowing whether or not you are in fact ingesting an endless stream of lies, and being taken for a ride to destinations unknown. Every characteristic of humankind, both good and ill, is on full display online. The Internet's benefits are evident to the billions who use it daily, but, for all the attention now being drawn to the ubiquitous falsehoods and vicious attacks that permeate cyberspace, the full extent of its destructiveness is largely hidden from view. Hordes of anonymous con artists, spies, predators, character assassins and mere tricksters operate under the cover of virtual darkness; the chances of being caught committing a cybercrime are not zero but they are slim. Ordinary commerce also hides its intentions behind slick websites that are designed by research to have the best chance of separating us from our money, all the while collecting vast quantities of data every time we touch a mouse or keypad. (Software extensions like Disconnect display in real time how many entities that you've never heard of are tracking your every movement online — often dozens of them simultaneously.) You would not walk comfortably through a dark and deserted underground garage in the middle of the night, but nearly every day of your life you casually surf the web without paying even scant attention to who is watching you. If the real and immediate prospect of identity theft, document kidnapping, government snooping, and myriad other forms of digital larceny aren't enough to change your online habits, what chance is there that the slow decay of journalistic norms and democratic institutions is going to sway you?
If the last year has taught us anything, it is that words can have serious consequences, and that unchecked lies in particular are deeply harmful to our body politic. Mendacity has stalked humanity for thousands, perhaps millions, of years, and is obviously not a unique product of the digital age. But in the history of the dissemination of knowledge, cyberspace is unique in several key respects: it accelerates the spread of every kind of information, truthful and otherwise, to speeds never before experienced; and it allows lies and other malevolent behavior to proliferate without leaving obvious fingerprints. Given the ill intent of so many digital thugs, and the inability of ordinary Internet users to fact-check everything they see and hear, the only truly safe practice is to start from the premise that everything you encounter online is a lie.
If your immediate response is that this is a bit extreme, then the onus is on you, dear reader: prove the statement wrong.
You may well argue that there are online sources — say, the websites of established newspapers — that are in fact reliable. If you are paying for an online subscription to your newspaper, and have to log in to read it, then you are admittedly in safer territory than on a free site that gives its news away. The New York Times website is not in the same category as, say, The Drudge Report. (You may think the Times is hopelessly biased, but that's another issue entirely.) But "safer" is not the same as "fool-proof". The reason the Times' website is reliable is not solely because you have to pay for access, or because it actively protects itself against hacking; all large websites do, to the degree they can afford to. The reason you trust the Times online is because the website is a digital version, albeit greatly expanded, of the print edition. Digital stories can be compared with their counterparts in ink, making it rather difficult for the Times to pull a fast one on readers when stories have already been committed to paper. Besides, the fallout from attempting such a ruse would be ruinous to its reputation.
However, no website is entirely immune from subterfuge, and therefore none should ever be entirely free of suspicion. The daily paper that you buy at the corner newsstand, or get delivered to your stoop in a blue plastic bag, is deemed very reliable because it would be well nigh impossible for fraudsters to publish and deliver hundreds of thousands of papers in place of the real ones. Online, however, a determined hacker could theoretically replace a Times article with a fake one with little effort or expense, or even perhaps take down the whole paper and put up a phony edition. This wouldn't last long, because the Times is presumably vigilant about protecting its site and would detect the intrusion. But if you happened to browse the site at the very moment when the ersatz Times was live, how would you know that what you were reading wasn't the real thing? If you've ever received a fake email purporting to be from your bank or credit card company, with a very convincing-looking logo, asking for personal information, you know how easy it is for hackers to impersonate even a reputable and well-known company. A moderately sophisticated Internet user can teach anyone how to commit the very same fraud in 15 minutes or less.
The phony Times scenario may seem far-fetched, but it does not disprove the assertion on the table: how can you know with certainty that any source of information is what it purports to be? If you have to take care to ensure that the websites of widely known and reputable organizations are authentic, what level of reliability can you possibly assign to "news" accounts posted on sites like Buzzfeed or Breitbart, let alone the postings of total strangers and unknowns on Facebook, Instagram or any other platform of so-called social media? It is astonishing how many people actually seek and dispense serious advice, including medical advice, all over the web. If you know nothing about a topic, you will not be edified by other people who also know nothing. Spending your days doing online "research" does not make you an expert. There are no university degrees for Internet-educated "scientists". Get real.
Another example that most people would probably consider benign is Wikipedia. The strength of Wikipedia is its openness: absolutely anyone can write an entry, and absolutely anyone can edit one. The very idea of a "wiki" is that no one owns or controls it, and that users set the standard by which it is built and maintained. Wikipedia is not a company (there are no ads) but is run by a not-for-profit foundation, which relies on private donations. But its idealism — its pure embodiment of democracy — is also a serious weakness. Like an actual democracy, Wikipedia relies on the good will of many individuals to sustain itself and its mission; but unlike a living democracy, it does not have institutions to counterbalance the inevitable human descent into self-interest. The brilliance of the Founding Fathers was recognizing that man could not govern himself without checks against the more sinister aspects of his nature. Allowing individuals to police themselves without any institutional structures on which to ground their behavior has never been anything but a prelude to anarchy. It is a totem of the digital age that standards are passé: why trust "experts" when the people can assemble the truth on their own? This is a bold but hopelessly naive belief, as the increasingly ugly reality of the Internet unfolds before our eyes. The decline of standards is how so many of our most important institutions — government and journalism chief among them - have fallen into such a parlous state. Would you have any faith in doctors who followed no standards of practice? In construction engineers without standards of exactitude? Courts of law without standards of evidence? Then why do we increasingly entrust our very way to life to individuals who abide by no standards of truth or integrity?
The online face of Wikipedia appears neutral and consistent, and the intentions of many of its editors and contributors are undoubtedly sincere. However, the user has no way of knowing where any article comes from. Consider this disclaimer from Wikipedia on its site:
Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information. Indeed, many articles start their lives as displaying a single viewpoint; and, after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument, they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus. Others may, for a while, become caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint which can take some time — months or years perhaps — to achieve better balanced coverage of their subject.
How is this different from our Times example, or that of any other "reliable" site? How do you know, at the particular moment when you read a particular article, at what point of its evolution you find it? Wikipedia defends its disclaimers of accuracy as comparable to those of authoritative entities like Encyclopedia Britannica, but the comparison bears no scrutiny. Wikipedia has become so vast that reviewing its millions of articles in any comprehensive way would be literally impossible (and it would violate its very essence to do so). Entries in Britannica and other established encyclopedias are signed by their authors and thoroughly vetted by editors. This is by no means a guarantor of accuracy or lack of bias, but it is a serious and transparent attempt at both. Readers may judge from its byline whether a Britannica entry is slanted towards a particular point of view; the anonymity of Wikipedia's contributors makes such discernment impossible. Anyone who has ever tried to correct errors in a Wikipedia entry, only to find them repeatedly reinserted by other contributors with a competing agenda, will attest to the inherent unreliability of this approach. Even counting on Wikipedia as a repository of basic information, such as names, dates and places, is a crap shoot. Perhaps the vast majority of its articles are indeed accurate and reliable, but which ones constitute that majority, and at what point in time?
In Tom Stoppard's play "The Invention of Love", a master at Oxford, contemplating a text by the Roman poet Catullus, bemoans the unreliability of the printed word:
"Think of all those secretaries! — corruption breeding corruption from papyrus to papyrus, and from the last disintegrating scrolls to the first new-fangled parchment books, with a thousand years of copying-out still to come, running the gauntlet of changing forms of scripts and spelling, and absence of punctuation — not to mention mildew and rats and fire and flood and Christian disapproval to the brink of extinction as what Catullus really wrote passed from scribe to scribe, this one drunk, that one sleepy, another without scruple, and of those sober, wide-awake and scrupulous, some ignorant of Latin and some, even worse, fancying themselves better Latinists than Catullus — until! — finally and at long last — mangled and tattered like a dog that has fought its way home, there falls across the threshold of the Italian Renaissance the sole surviving witness to thirty generations of carelessness and stupidity: the Verona Codex of Catullus, which was almost immediately lost again, but not before being copied with one last opportunity for error."
To prove Stoppard's point, two out of three online versions of this quotation were found to have errors, compared to the "official" copy of the play published (on paper) a mere 20 years ago. Error, like deliberate untruth, is the handmaiden of all human effort, and not a particular product of digitization. But the Internet has taken a world already awash in misrepresentations, misquotes and misattributions and spun it into a web of unintelligible confusion. If scholars could not be confident about the authenticity of texts they were reading a century or more ago, what possible justification can anyone have for supposing that the Internet, a flowering malignancy of every base human impulse, is remotely reliable as a source of information?
Distrust is Our Only Hope
What we literally see and hear on the World Wide Web is often appealing, engaging, alluring. Not infrequently it rises to the level of beauty. But in relation to what transpires unseen in the innards of the networks that are infested by the Web, its visual and auditory interface barely qualifies as the tip of the iceberg. You can decide for yourself whether it is simply too inconvenient to bother yourself about the dishonesty and inaccuracy that proliferate online, and instead concede what may seem to be a reasonable amount of trust in what you read there. This is entirely understandable. In his book The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin argues that the Internet age has made our daily routines immensely more complicated and time-consuming. Initially, it felt like liberation to sit in one place and take care of our many practical needs: shopping, banking, comparing mortgage rates and insurance policies, buying movie tickets, making one's own travel arrangements, searching the web freely for all and sundry. But what we have not realized is that, amidst the creeping ubiquity of the Internet, we are spending incalculably more time doing more things for ourselves than we ever did before (not to mention the time we spend buying and maintaining our devices). We pay a steep price for our independence, as tasks that were once performed by shopkeepers, bank tellers, ticket sellers, brokers, travel agents, and countless others whose jobs have disappeared and are never coming back, we now have to do for ourselves. Add to that the thousands of items we own, compared to households in centuries past, and the task of keeping track of our lives has become enormously more difficult. Our brains literally cannot keep up with it. If the Internet offers what appears to be relief, we latch on to it. Congratulations, you're free — to spend the rest of your life browsing the web. And, by the way, nothing you find there is dependably true.
If the consequences for our diurnal cycles were not severe enough, the potential fallout in the social and political spheres is catastrophic. In the post-election hand-wringing and finger-pointing that passes for analysis, much attention has been pointed at the proliferation of "fake" news. This has been followed, predictably, by counter-arguments from those who tell lies for a living that it's actually the "mainstream" media that is guilty of spreading false news. (You are forgiven for taking a moment here to sigh in despair.) We are repeatedly told that it's not the voters' fault, because it's fiendishly difficult to discern truth from fiction. We are led to believe that the non-journalist public has no easy way to determine whether a particular story has been impartially reported by a reputable news organization, is a deliberate lie told by someone with a political or ideological ax to grind, or merely sprang from the adolescent imagination of a malevolent hacker. What is the poor innocent reader to do?
Rubbish. Our leaders are responsible for their own lousy behavior, but our own fecklessness makes us their enablers. As the former congressman Barney Frank once said, politicians cause a lot of problems, "but the voters are no bargain, either". From the beginnings of civilization, the people in charge have gone to great pains to make their official lies appears as valid as anything else the people may hear. Why is it that one of the first actions of a revolutionary army or military coup is to seize control of the airwaves? Why does China block huge swathes of the Internet, and North Korea prevent nearly all of it from getting into the country? In this respect all modern societies have a natural tilt towards authoritarianism, as governments and large corporations have a vested interest in keeping you confused and ignorant. The swirling maelstrom of the Internet, with its inseparable amalgam of the fake and the real, is a gift of pure malice in the hands of the unscrupulous. If you are expecting the high and mighty to save you from the worst excesses of the digital underworld, forget it. They are among the worst perpetrators. But throwing up our hands in surrender is no substitute for being the inveterate skeptics that democracy requires us to be.
This year of fakery may have prompted the latest anxieties about the worldwide state of truth-telling, but it is mere drop in the poisoned sea of propaganda. Humanity has just barely survived a century in which the apparatus of lying was honed to perfection by dictatorships of all persuasions: fascist, communist, sectarian, and garden-variety despots both great and small. Even the governments of largely free and democratic societies conduct a bustling trade in lies, borrowing freely from the proven methods of disreputable rivals and adversaries. This lays them open to criticism from abroad: look at all the lies your politicians tell, look at the deceptions of the CIA — what makes you better than anyone else? All governments go to great trouble and expense to persuade the public that its actions are justified and good for the nation, and Americans are no less vulnerable to lies and deceptions than citizens of any other country. But the difference between liberal societies and others is not merely a difference of degree. We may have a long and sordid history of responding to external threats with the sacrifice of civil liberties, from the Alien & Sedition Acts to the Patriot Act, but we do not yet have thought police or a national network of government snitches. (Madison said, "The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.") Our Constitutional protections for free speech and a free press are not inviolable, and we tolerate a great deal of vulgarity, obscenity, and just plain meanness for the sake of maintaining a free marketplace of ideas. And then there are times (and this sure feels like one of them) when our ordinarily laudable tolerance for despicable speech leaves us vulnerable to despicable actions.
The situation is not hopeless, if we follow the simple rule: don't believe anything you read online. (Start right here, if you wish: no offense taken.) Surely this is a more sensible approach than assuming that everything you read online is true. Is it not more responsible to disbelieve first and verify later? Were you raised to trust everyone, to put your life in the hands of any passing stranger, or to try to find out who you're dealing with first? If you don't know the source and you didn't pay for it, assume that what you're reading is not true. Remember when television entertainment was in the hands of the three major networks, and was mostly crap? That's because it was free. In the last couple of decades, the quality of television programs has risen steadily, to the point where the best comedy and drama are no longer at the movies. This is because cable and streaming are paid for directly by consumers, and there is clearly a demand for high-caliber writing and directing. People can sometimes be manipulated into paying for garbage, but are disinclined to do so directly. If the networks are now improving, too, it is only because they have to compete for eyeballs with paid subscription services like Netflix and Amazon. In the arena of marketing, news and entertainment have this in common: any source that has no price also has no worth.
Never mind whether a website is ideologically abhorrent to you, or if the arguments it makes validate your world view. Bias is not relevant to this argument, and is, in fact, a major reason why fake news has proven useful to those who generate it. Never mind if a site seems professional or plausible, or if it claims to quote people you admire. Do you not get emails from African princes promising untold riches in exchange for your bank account information? Isn't your inbox, like everyone else's, filled every day with hoaxes and conspiracy theories, with anonymous entreaties to forward a message to 20 people of your acquaintance? If someone you didn't know rang your doorbell and made these exact same requests, you would likely (and justifiably) slam the door in his face and call the police. So if you dismiss such lies and deceptions out of hand, and accept the general notion that the Internet is a swirling swamp of deliberate untruths of largely unknown origin, why on earth would you accept the truth of "news" websites and social media postings, whose authors are sketchy at best and driven by profit, power or ideology at worst? Friends don't send friends unsourced news. Have you not been paying attention?
If you are getting your news free, you are not getting the news. End of story.
December 31, 2016
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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.