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Ilona's Blog: July 2021

The Internet Has Too Many Answers
by Ilona Nickels

The truthiness of facts depends on
which lens you see them through.

No one wants to go back to the days when a simple fact check meant a required trip to the library or a long hold on the phone waiting for an answer from a reference librarian. What took hours in a library to unearth now takes seconds online.

The dawn of the Internet Age has liberated us to do our work more effectively, get information more expeditiously, assuage our curiosity, and instantly entertain ourselves. It's been life-changing, time-saving and a blessing in many ways.

But… it has also divided our society, destroyed much of our social fabric, and caused harm and distress to many people of all ages.

Former President Trump has just filed a class action lawsuit charging social media platforms like Facebook with acting as pseudo government entities by cooperating with official government entities – like the White House – to censor information posted by private citizens on the grounds that their information is fallacious, misleading, and harmful.

Says who? Fact checkers aren't divine, even if they work for the Washington Post. The title, Fact Checker, doesn't automatically bestow trustworthiness. When these Pinocchio producers are evaluating what is factual and what is not, what lens are they looking through to discern truth?

In the middle of President Trump's term, one of his counselors, Kellyanne Conway, was derided and mocked in the mainstream media for using the phrase "alternative facts." The stinging rebukes she received were based on the assumption that facts were facts. There was only one truth to be found.

The Internet begs to differ. It is flooded with conflicting facts. It invites you to choose your truth. It counts on the tendency of users to rely on the first thing they see. It biases your search by putting some websites upfront, so they show up at the top of search results, while willfully burying others (see Google). It is laden with unvetted, unverified, unserious sites. There are undoubtedly some solid, good, factual sites buried in the middle of those feckless ones. But finding them is hard. And time-consuming.

The truthiness of facts depends on which lens you see them through. Is anyone even capable of discerning what is good and solid versus what is dubious and unvetted? Are we sacrificing reliability of information in exchange for an immediate result?

So what's a frustrated user to do? There are two choices: take personal responsibility to uncover reliable information or knowingly and willingly cede the responsibility to a third party.

Taking personal responsibility means doing the work yourself of vetting, comparing, judging and evaluating and not relying on whatever you first find. No one can replace you as the ultimate arbiter of what is reliable, what is verifiable, what is truth. No social media company. No governmental entity. No newspaper. The standards for truth are so varied, so broad, so unspecific that you trust others to make that judgment for you at your own peril.

The only other option is to ask yourself this question: Who do I trust? Facebook? My Twitter feed? A newspaper? A news network? Who do I trust with confidence and without doubt? If you can truly answer that question, then rely on that source to do the vetting, evaluating and judging for you.

But know for certain that others will have made a different choice and the results are what we all live with today in our public policy and political debates: alternative facts. Kellyanne Conway was right. They exist.

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