Facts and Feelings

We are living in an age when information is no longer scarce. The Internet gave everyone access to the information. It was sold to us as an information superhighway. Think of all of the wonderful resources you have right at your fingertips with this fantastic, revolutionary technology. Then, interactive web tools came along and made it really easy for anyone to post content online. We moved away from broadcast media, where a single entity informs the masses, to a system where everyone has a voice. It’s a democracy of information. Finally, mobile technologies became practical, so those tools are now available to us wherever we are.

Information is free, in both senses of the word. Questions no longer go unanswered, opinions no longer go unshared. It’s truly a wonderful and amazing time to be living.

flat-earth-1054350_960_720But there’s also a problem. We are overwhelmed by content. When I was in school, we used to struggle to find enough information to write cohesive research papers. Now, finding enough information is as easy as a Google search. We have to be able to filter that information to find the most relevant content, evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the content we’re finding from disparate sources, and build on that knowledge to spark new ideas and new solutions to complex problems.

You’re probably still with me at this point. If you’re working in higher education, you have an anecdote to insert here about kids these days thinking that “Google” and “Research” are synonyms. Many in K-12 are thinking I’m rehashing old ideas, because we’ve been doing all of these things for years and talking about 21st Century Skills since the 21st century started. If we’re sitting in a room having this conversation, this is the point at which someone will disparagingly refer to Wikipedia. After all, anyone can change it. How reliable can that be? Once we’ve made that turn, we’re off on a track that leads to me ranting about how Wikipedia is actually a pretty reliable source because of their insistence on citations and their transparency about where the information comes from. My challenge to Wikipedia haters is to change a basic fact on the site to be wrong, and see how long that lasts before someone fixes it.

But that’s not where we’re going today. I want to talk about something more important than whether your ninth grade English teacher will let you cite Wikipedia as a source.

What if you want to mislead people? Everyone on the Internet has a megaphone. Everyone can be a content creator. Everyone can be a publisher. Let’s say I want to convince people of something crazy. Maybe I want people to think that the Earth is flat. How would I do that?

I could start by referencing the ancient Greeks, who believed the Earth to be flat until the Pythagoras came along to cause trouble. I could also refer to ancient Indians (prior to the year 300), American aboriginal traditions, or China up until the 17th century. These were smart people, philosophers and scientists, and they wrote about the world being flat all the time.

I could reference 19th century literature by the likes of Washington Irving, whose romanticized history of Christopher Columbus includes the idea that 15th century Europeans thought he would fall off the edge of the Earth.  Or, I could write about the work of Samuel Rowbotham, whose “scientific” work in Zetetic Astronomy proved the Earth is flat in 1849. Moving to the modern age, I can reference the Flat Earth Society, which has been advocating for a flat Earth model since the days of Sputnik. Finally, I can top it off with 21st century author Thomas Friedman, by taking his best-selling book’s metaphor completely out of context.

Maybe I’ve convinced you. Maybe I haven’t. Now it’s time to fire up the social media machine. I start tweeting about the Earth being flat. I post conspiracy theories on Facebook, and make catchy memes about it. People tell me I’m crazy. They start arguing in the comments. They bait the troll. I shoot back. Now, I start focusing on the buzz. People are talking about whether the Earth is flat. Look at all these conversations on the Internet about the flat Earth. Why is big media assuming that the Earth is round? Where’s our equal time? Where’s our fair and balanced?

At this point, it’s time to discredit our own strategy. Anyone can put anything on the Internet. You can’t trust what you read online. We’ve been burned so many times by misleading and biased content that we’re quick to agree with the cynical view that everyone has an agenda. Everyone is against us. Those fact checkers who say the Earth is round? They have an agenda. They’re out to get us. The impartial media? They’re not so impartial after all. They only tell one side of the story. This so-called science that proves the Earth is round? Well, we all know what they say about statistics. You can make the numbers say anything you want.

Now, this is the part that’s new. It’s time to change the story. Many people believe the world is flat. Lots of people are talking about the flat Earth. The news reports the facts. The politicians cite the facts. The fact-checkers check the facts. But the facts have changed. Did you catch the subtle shift? People are talking. That is a fact. People believe. That is a fact. This politician said. That is a fact. The Earth is flat. It doesn’t matter if that’s a fact. It’s just the object of the talking and believing and feeling. So you can say things like “Lots of people think the world is flat” and “Flat Earth proponents feel like they’re underrepresented in media.” Both of those statements are true. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to fall of the edge of the planet.

Distinguishing between fact and opinion is a lot harder than it used to be. We have to teach our children (and our parents, and our peers) to recognize those triggers of “feel”, “believe”, and “think”. Opinions are valuable. Beliefs matter. They shape our view of the world, and our actions in it. But people can be wrong. If one wrong person convinces 99 others, then we have 100 wrong people. The fact that there are 100 of them doesn’t make them less wrong, even if they feel like they’re not being heard. It’s a lot easier now for a few people to use “feelings” to mislead others. Part of being an informed digital citizen is recognizing when that’s being done to us.


Post script: Did you notice that almost all of those links about the flat Earth go to the SAME Wikipedia article? The links may make the text look more reliable, but cited sources are only as good as the person checking them.

Photo credit: JooJoo41 on Pixabay.


My Word

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

In 1993, Peter Steiner captured the sentiment that I was trying to convey to my students. The Internet was the great equalizer. Middle school students can be pretty judgmental. If you don’t have the right clothes, or the right hairstyle, or like the right kind of music, or have the right body type, or reject the right authority figures, you can quickly find yourself ostracized. Most of them have felt that pressure to conform, to be the same as everyone else.

I was trying to explain that it’s okay to be different online. Maybe you weigh a lot more than others your age. Maybe you speak English with a thick accent. Maybe you have a physical handicap. Maybe your skin is a different color. That’s okay. On the Internet, people judge you only on the information you give them. It was a very liberating idea, where the exchange of ideas can take place on their own merit, without all of the preconceptions that come with our physical interaction.

They were such simple, naive times, those early days before the world wide web was, well, so world-wide.

A few years later, I took this a step further. From the lens of online safety, I explained to my eighth grade boys that, statistically speaking, the cute 13-year-old girl they just met in an online chat room is more likely a 45-year-old man. They didn’t care for the imagery, but they got the point.

What I told my students way back in the dark ages is still true. You are judged online only by the information you give people. But if your name is one of the things you don’t give, then your ideas have no weight. Take a look at any site that allows user comments. If anonymous comments are permitted, there’s almost certainly an inflammatory conversation taking place. I was sad to see Patch reverse their rule requiring that the site’s users use their real names. The result was an immediate degradation in the quality of the discourse, to the point where I no longer bother to read comments on the site.

The same argument can be used to defend Google’s position in the Nym Wars. If we really want people to behave civilly in an online environment, we have to tie their online identities to their offline ones. In short, we have to know who they are.

We’ve had problems in our high school recently with graffiti in our restrooms. Our students seem to take great delight in decorating the stall walls and doors with their artwork. I sense that they’d be somewhat less inclined to do so if they weren’t anonymous. Almost none of them signs their work.

Take this to the political arena. I’ve stopped consuming mass media entirely until after the election, because I’m tired of the constant barrage of ads. Most of the political ads we’re seeing now are attack ads. They don’t promote or advocate for the election of a candidate. Instead, they attack the candidate’s opponent. And where do these ads come from? So far, $374 million have been spent in the presidential election by super PACs. These are political organizations that collect money from anonymous donors and use it to smear the preferred candidate’s opponent. It’s anonymous, just like taking a sharpie to the bathroom stalls of the White House.

I’m a believer in the first amendment. I believe that we (we, the citizens of the world, not just we the people of the United States) should be able to say and write whatever we want most of the time. We should be able to challenge our governments. We should be able to speak out for the oppressed. We should be able to act like jerks and say things that don’t make any sense and support candidates who have no business seeking elected office. But we should also have to stand behind those words. You don’t get to be an invented troll online who exists only to argue.

Despite my initial embrace of the potential of anonymity online, I’m only one person. My words are my words. And when I put them online, I attach my name to them. If you don’t do that, I’m not going to pay attention to you.

Photo credit: Matt Westervelt on Flickr.