Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, before the Internet became virtually omnipresent in businesses and households, the idea of an “Information Superhighway” — a term coined by Al Gore — that connected every household and allowed them both to consume and provide information was a distant possibility. And although the term seems somewhat dated in the age of Web 2.0, it is still a good analogy.
Unlike older forms of media, such as television or newspapers, which only allow one-way movement of information, the Internet was the first to enable two-way communication. Just as you can reach any public road from your car, you can reach any public computer on the Internet.
But few expected just how prevalent the Internet would become and just how much people would come to rely on it as a source of information. With the increased prevalence of online news and television, the importance of the Internet seems likely to continue increasing.
The downside, however, to our increasing reliance on the Web is how easily it can propagate misinformation. Whereas with traditional media, the average person cannot broadcast his or her own ideas, the Internet freely allows exactly that. The ability of the Internet to serve as a mouthpiece for all and any that choose to use it as such is simultaneously one of its greatest benefits and its greatest shortcomings.
The most recent example is the Sept. 12 Tea Party protests, which were said to have brought together between 60,000 and 75,000 protestors, based on reports from the Washington, D.C., fire department and various news outlets. However, in a misattribution on ABC News’ part, they stated that there were nearly 2,000,000 protestors, which is a very large error. The figure of 2 million then spread around the Internet through Twitter and various blogs, where it was treated as fact. And although many who reported that figure later retracted it, the issue here is really the Internet’s role in the dissemination and wholesale acceptance of that information in the first place.
But the tendency to grasp onto some bit of information if it fits within your political views regardless of its veracity is not limited to the political right. The liberal blog The Huffington Post often posts articles supportive of the anti-vaccination movement, which contends that excessive vaccinations lead to unwanted side effects. In particular, critics of vaccines claim that additives in the vaccines are responsible for autism in many children. Although an early study did show a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism, it was later retracted by a majority of the co-authors of the study. Despite their retraction, however, this study continues to be used as evidence in support of a link between autism and vaccines by some, even though current scientific consensus is that no such link exists at all.
There isn’t an easy solution to the problem of misinformation online. It is neither practical nor within the bounds of the constitution to monitor the correctness of information online. There needs to be some skepticism in regards to information found online, particularly in regards to controversial claims.
The Internet has proven to be an incredible source of information, but that information isn’t always accurate. While there will always be outrageous claims and conspiracy theories, there isn’t much of an issue until someone with a large presence repeats these claims and they spiral out of control.