Friday, November 18, 2016

Responsibility On Line

I just finished reading Sense of Style, a book about writing by Stephen Pinker.  After covering clarity, fluency of thought, styles, grammar and syntax, he wraps up with some general advice for writers.  I contend that the audience for his advice is much wider than he intended.  Today nearly everyone is a writer – maybe not a professional writer, but a writer just the same.

Pinker’s closing points are about the integrity of an author.  “First, look things up.  Humans are cursed with a deadly combination of a highly fallible memory and an overconfidence in how much they know… If you are making a factual claim it should be verifiable.” 

Writing is not like speaking.  There is always time to find a reliable source to check whether what you are writing is true.  Why should anyone trust a writer who had the time to check the truth of their assertions but didn’t bother?

Many journalists have learned this lesson the hard way.  They risked their careers by making things up or by being careless about material that reflected their personal viewpoints.  Here is a short list with quoted sections taken from the individual Wikipedia entries. 
  • Jayson Blair: “an American journalist formerly with The New York Times. He resigned from the newspaper in May 2003 in the wake of the discovery of plagiarism and fabrication in his stories.”  The entry lists 7 cases of falsifying information about interviews he conducted and places visited from late 2002 to early 2003.
  • Janet Cooke:  “a former American journalist. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for an article written for The Washington Post, but the story was later discovered to have been fabricated.”  She is the only person to have returned a Pulitzer.
  • Stephen Glass:  “Over a three-year period [in the 1990s] as a young rising star at The New Republic, Glass invented quotations, sources, and events in articles he wrote for that magazine and others.”
  • James Frey:  “His two first books, A Million Little Pieces (2003) and My Friend Leonard (2005), were marketed as memoirs, but large parts of the stories were later found to be exaggerated or fabricated.”  First released as brutally honest nonfiction, later editions included a note from the author and publisher apologizing. 
  • Dan Rather:  “became embroiled in controversy about a disputed news report involving President George W. Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard and subsequently left CBS Evening News in 2005, and he left the network altogether after 43 years in 2006.”  His report relied on documents that “could not be authenticated.” 
What do we have in common with these professionals?  Why should we care?  With the growth of the Internet and social media, most people today are writers but don’t know it.  The act of liking, following and forwarding puts them in that category.  By virtue of this "authorship" they must also accept responsibility for accuracy.  Like some of those professionals mentioned and many more, they must not simply repost material that reinforces their worldview without checking.

A widely-reported posting on Buzz Feed News a few days ago said that by the end of the presidential campaign, there were more engagements (shares, comments, likes, etc.) of fake news than of mainstream news.  Some fake news was obviously made up, but the interest in spreading it outweighed the responsibility to get it right.  (Not that most mainstream news was without an agenda.) 

This NBC News story adds to the concern.  A doctor looked into the accuracy of information spread on line about the Zika virus earlier this year.  Out of 200 posts, she classified about 12 percent as misleading.  It was bad information, usually centering on some conspiracy theory.  Now 12 percent is not necessarily bad, but she also found that the misinformation was the most popular.  “The most shared credible and useful post, for example, was a video of a WHO press briefing that was viewed 43,000 times and shared by 964 Facebook accounts. The most popular post spreading misinformation claimed Zika virus is a ‘fraudulent medical hoax’ and was viewed more than 530,000 times. That post was also shared by more than 19,600 people.”  In other words, bad information in this case had between 10 and 20 times the reach of reliable medical facts.

Apparently none of those 19,600 people recognized themselves as an author with the responsibilities to fact-check material before forwarding it.  But so much bad information is circulating on Facebook and other social media, that one source of false claims might be used to justify another faulty source.  It becomes a vicious cycle of untruth – a cycle of myths and misperception that others rely on to make decisions.

Some of this information may be relatively harmless.  People may waste a little money on a false hope, a miracle cure to a minor problem or an herb that promises longer life.  In other cases, many of them highlighted in my previous postings, the spread of false information can lead to serious health or financial problems.  Not taking Zika or any other real disease seriously is but one example.

Social media circulates bad information and half-truths daily.  The examples above imply that bad information drives out good information.  If any authors, including the likers and forwarders, don’t take responsibility, they lose credibility.  They lose the trust of friends and readers.  Then we are left with a situation where everyone must exercise critical thinking and verify before believing anything.

It used to be a common joke to say, "It must be true, I read it on the Internet."  It was well understood that the Internet was not reliable.  Today people get their news from Facebook, other social media and comedy shows, take it at face value and pass it along - scary!

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