When I was growing up, I rolled out of bed every morning and wandered into the kitchen to find my mom working the New York Times crossword puzzle. It was her daily ritual…wake early, brew coffee, pick up the paper from the front lawn, browse the news, and work the crossword.
That newspaper was a fixture in our home, as it was in most pre-Internet households. We trusted the newspaper. Of course we understood that it contained a mixture of fact and opinion. But we also understood the journalistic process that led to the final content of each issue. We also understood the bright line separating the newspaper that arrived each morning before dawn and the tabloids at the grocery store check out.
The Internet has changed all that. There are no bright lines. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are served up in much the same way as tabloid and satire sites.
The Borowitz Report handily demonstrates this problem. The left-leaning satire blog from The New Yorker is hilarious no matter your political persuasion. But occasionally, its satirical articles show up in the Yahoo News feed where it blends with actual news items. It gets shared across social media as if it’s real.
I frequently see articles from The Daily Currant and The Onion shared as true on my Facebook newsfeed. They are both satirical sites, but their articles get shared as if they are real journalism. Often comments accompany these articles lamenting the Democratic President or Republican Senate responsible for the outrageous event described in the article.
Moreover, many web writers are highly skilled at creating clickbait - those headlines that say something like, “This Woman Drank Six Cups of Coffee Every Morning for a Year and When You See What it Did to Her…Wow!”
Often clickbait headlines lead to less-than-true articles. This happens all too often in my subject are of medicine. Here superfoods cure horrible disease or every day products destroy health. Health News Reviews was created to battle this very problem. Online content misleads us and lies to us on a daily basis. We seem to be okay with it, though, because we keep consuming the biggest offenders.
Or, maybe it’s not that we are fine with it, but that we don’t know it’s happening. Could it be that the Internet causes more difficulties with identifying the truth than simply blurring the lines between journalism and entertainment?
Eli Pariser thinks it does. Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, explains just how the Internet does so in his 2011 TED Talk. This was already happening five years ago, which is the Internet equivalent of the Jurassic period. The Internet is much better at what it does now, much like we are much better at walking upright.
So how does the Internet influence us beyond the content it hosts? It’s all in the algorithms. Facebook is notorious for manipulating users’ newsfeeds based on their past activities. If you click a lot of cute kitten videos, Facebook will show you more cute kitten videos. If you click a lot of content that supports a particular political view, you get more content supporting that political view. Soon, you only see content that reinforces your worldview (or love of kittens.) Without a challenge to that worldview, you don’t have to mine it for inconsistencies or outright lies.
But that’s Facebook. Everybody knows that’s a rigged game…right? Well, not always, but it doesn’t even matter, because guess who else uses algorithms? Google.
Google uses its immense stash of data to serve up unique search results for individual users. So your hardline Republican sister is going to get different search results for “presidential campaign” than your Blue Dog Democrat brother. They will each have their viewpoints reinforced.
If you spend a lot of time reading about the dangers of vaccines, you will get content served up that helps you feel good about those views. Global warming? Immigration? Healthcare reform? Ditto, ditto, ditto. This explains why so many are ready to accept the most outrageous satire as genuine news. It may just explain why we seem so ready to accept the lies bandied about by the most recent batch of presidential candidates.
On an individual level this can hurt our health and well-being. On a national level it can influence elections and policy in drastic ways. On a global level it can cause harm to large groups of people and negatively impact the future of humanity.
How on earth do we combat this? If the Internet is serving up only content that reinforces our views, we might not even know it’s happening.
First, we cannot believe everything we hear, read or watch. Caveat emptor - buyer beware. You may not be getting the truth and it’s up to you to understand what it is you are getting. If a story seems over the top or too good to be true, fact check it before you believe it.
Second, don’t share stories on the Internet if you don’t know them to be accurate. Wildfires are hard to stop. A viral story is worse.
Third, remember that print newspapers and magazines still exist. Reading content uninfluenced by algorithms can provide a less filtered view of reality, particularly if you read a variety of sources offering different viewpoints.
Finally, broaden your circle of friends – online and off. Ideas need to be challenged. If you and your friends agree on everything, challenge isn’t happening.
The Continental Congress took well over a year to agree to declare independence from Great Britain, gathering and arguing with colleagues who held different views all along the way. The results were pretty great. Future generations deserve no less from us.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider