Monday, March 5, 2012

Misinformation Age

Some lateral supplements to the last post:

1.) A friend of mine used to edit Wikipedia articles in order to win bets. He and a buddy would be out drinking somewhere, and they'd get into an argument about the veracity of some factoid or other.

"If you're so certain you're right," my friend would say, "why don't you put twenty bucks on it?" So they'd shake on it, each convinced the other would be handing him a twenty the next time they met.

My friend would make sure he got home (or at least to a computer) first, and then immediately open up the Wikipedia page pertaining to the contentious topic. Discovering that he was actually in the wrong and stood to lose twenty bucks, he'd click "edit" and alter the article to verify his argument.

A couple of hours later, he'd give his buddy a ring and refer to their wager.

"Yeah, I looked it up. Guess you were right," his buddy would grudgingly admit.

My friend has done this more than once.

I'm not condemning him -- a twenty dollar bill is a lot to lose for being wrong about a trivia question, after all. But instances like these are an unavoidable collateral of the open-sourcing of knowledge, and they are worth considering -- especially as Wikipedia settles into its elected role as the source of information.

As a nonprofit institution, Wikipedia has to employ its editors on a volunteer basis, and these dedicated sifters of the knowledge vat take their duties quite seriously. My friend's changes were doubtlessly spotted and reversed. But when a prankster or vandal pulls something like this, how many trusting readers see and accept the false information before somebody notices and corrects it? In the case of a particularly obscure topic, how long is it before a knowledgeable reader or editor removes the false information, and how many people see and believe it before then?

Who remembers the term Wikiality, coined by Stephen Colbert?

But back to my friend's bamboozled drinking buddy. "He's an idiot," you might say. "He should have checked other sources."

But does anyone check other sources anymore? Do we expect ourselves to? I'd be interested in seeing the numbers: what's the percentage of Internet users who consult Wikipedia as their go-to instant reference, and then just leave it at that? Of the people who use Wikipedia on a daily basis, how many of them regularly check an article's sources and revision history?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm a joyless buzzkill of a Luddite who reads the worst in everyone and everything and can take a wonderful creation like Wikipedia and treat it like it's a problem. But is it better to just ignore stuff like this?

2.) Part of my job at the Quaker retreat requires me to compile a weekly events bulletin. Early on, I got in the habit of including a quotation from one of my favorite authors and thinkers at the top. Some weeks I'll sit down with something specific in mind. Some mornings I'll sit down an hour before the thing needs to go out, and I'll cheat -- pick a famous thinker, activist, leader, etc. on a whim, and just punch "[name of person] quotes" into Google. Topping the list of results is almost always BrainyQuote.

At least Wikipedia strongly insists on the citation of its contributors' sources. BrainyQuote apparently has no such policy. If a famous person is reputed to have said something -- such as Freud's "sometimes as cigar is just a cigar" -- it gets slapped up on BrainyQuote. (If there is a Freud text actually containing this quote, there are some Freud scholars who would be very interested in knowing about it.)

But the quote I found one morning was another supposedly attributed to Freud:

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.

If there was ever a sentiment espoused by a German psychoanalyst that would resonate with Quakers, this would definitely be it. But when I copied the quote and pasted it into Google, all of the results that popped up were from similar "things famous people said plus advertisements" sites, none with any citations. But eventually I found this on the FAQ page of a Freud museum in London:

Where did Freud say that mental health meant the ability "to love and to work"?

This formula was cited by Erik Erikson but it is not to be found in Freud's works, although the sentiment is sometimes implied. During his long engagement Freud stated that his own ambition in life was to have Martha as his wife and to be able to work (e.g. "Couldn't I for once have you and the work at the same time?" Freud-Martha Bernays 21 Oct. 1885). Freud also referred to Eros and Ananke [Love and Necessity] as the foundations of society. In 'Civilization and Its Discontents' (1930) he wrote: "The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love... "

So yeah: the first (and therefore more authoritative) Google result for pithy Freud aphorisms attributes to Freud two things of which there is no record of the man ever actually saying or writing. It would be difficult to argue why this frightens me -- in even such a minor instance -- without getting into a cumbrous philosophical argument, so we'll skip that.

I have unfortunately lent out my copy of 1984, so I can't quote Mr. Orwell directly; but if you've read the book, you understand the Party's conviction that the past only exists insofar as what people know about it (i.e. what they're told about it) in the present. We can put whatever words into whomever's mouths we wish, provided enough people believe the words were actually said by this person. The apocrypha becomes the reality. (The Founding Fathers all held beliefs identical to those of today's evangelical Christians; Oceania is at war with Eastasia and has always been; Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well; it says in the Bible that if we're good, we go to heaven as soon as we die.)

But what we're observing today actually isn't as Orwellian as it is Huxleyian. (Huxlian?) In this case, the past is not distorted or reinvented because the records have been altered, lost, or destroyed -- but because nobody bothers to read them.

(Postscript: Mr. Pangrac suggests "Huxley-esque." That's a big derp on my part.)

3.) Speaking of misinformation, here are twenty-five people who think Barack Obama killed Andrew Breitbart. And these are likely just a handful of the whole pack.

Why do I doubt we've heard the last of this? If a baffling cultural bugbear like birtherism could hatch, grow, and slouch around for so long without dying, I doubt we should count this new one as a freak flash in the pan just yet.

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen: between now and November, will any well-known public figures (the equivalent of a Donald Trump) go on television and say something to the degree of "hey, I'm not SAYING Obama had Breitbart whacked, I'm just wondering -- isn't it just SUSPICIOUS is all?"

Now, on to some Other Stuff.

A.) The print version of my novel should be available by early April, inshallah.

B.) I'm considering putting up Google ads on this thing. Yeah, yeah -- I'm not thrilled about the idea either, and I don't expect it to amount to anything more than nickels in a change jar. But my financial circumstances are such that even some extra coinage isn't something I'd turn down.


  1. I hate blogspot. Have I said that before? This is the second time my comment has vanished when writing you a reply. I think.

    You know, I still don't know what you want from the comments section here. Do you want profound discussion? Mild discussion? Short musings that don't say anything new? Compliments? Links to similar subject matter that might or might not be relevant? Do you want commentary even if it only related to the subject matter rather that the sentiment?

    I finished your book. I don't know whether or not to comment on it here.

    I have stuff to type and pages to link to, but don't know if I should.

  2. Post whatever you want, but don't get offended if I don't immediately reply to every comment. I do read and consider all of them, though.

    1. Okay, well I'll just put everything here and try to make it a list because articulation is a weakness of mine.

      1. (Spoilers)I loved your book. It dragged on for a bit but ended wonderfully. Really felt like a good representation of human experience that you seem to love so much. Our generation, I guess? Though I went to college. Almost makes me want to start War and Peace again. I got the feeling that it was set up like the Heros Journey especially when he met Stacy again, were you going for that?

      2. I found like 5 errors and can't give you the pages because it didn't show em so you'll have to use ctrl+c:
      2a "making plan" I'm assuming you meant to put an s at the end.
      2b "This was what it was, and it what it was was intolerable" I'm assuming you either meant ",and it was intolerable" or ",and what it was was intolerable."
      2c "glass power" probably should have been "glass powder"
      2d "(With a tinge of pride, he noted that the cops had him held apart from the ten or so other people who got carried away him.)" I think you forgot the "with" between the "away him"
      2e "how many times more times" was probably supposed to be "how many more times"
      2f "the Numbers" vs "The Numbers," I can't tell if the inconsistent capitalization is unintentional.
      2g "five years ago, ten years ago." I can't tell if this is an error at all. It just seems like it could be.
      2h "an slight" probably meant "a slightly."

      3. Your last couple of posts have reminded me of a couple things from the internet. Figured you might like to give em a read:
      I just randomly found this right after your last 2 posts.
      Seriously, I think it was while I was looking up Chinese literature.

      4. I actually think that Wikipedias problem like that could be solved or lessened if they implemented an upvote system similar to reddit for edits to be featured.

      If you don't feel like reading the links, let me know.

    2. I'm sorry, for I actually meant

      The first 1 deals with sociology while the second one deals with the differences between reactions between elected officials and regular citizens.

      Basically it scientifically proves that electing people to rule for us corrupts them.

    3. 1.) Thanks; glad you liked it! The resemblance you say to the Hero's Journey was unintentional -- but the dragging on was totally deliberate. (Like the third act in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film.)

      (And for the record, I put in my four and a half years at the university as well. I sorta hoped the narrator's having a very literate best friend and taking a community college composition class might help account for his having a better vocabulary than your average mallrat.)

      2.) HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED THESE. I should have thanked you a lot sooner for pointing these out.

      3.) I tend not to read much Cracked, but feel free to post links for other people to check out. (I might suggest using a href tags, though.)

      4.) I've never been on Reddit. Am I missing out?

  3. I feel like most of the problems mentioned here could be at least be partially solved with education. However, instead of being taught facts as is custom in the American school system, what needs to be taught is how to think. 95% of all uncited 'facts' and pseudo-quotes can easily be seen through use of common sense, yet every day I see people taking obvious lies and discerning them as facts. The school system needs to realize that in the future children are going to seek knowledge from the internet over teachers, and adapt accordingly. We need to teach every child how to accurately discern what is true and what is false, and if something looks remotely suspicious, to spend 30 seconds looking at other sources.

    Unfortunately this is an unsolvable problem, and the above solution only partially solves it. I know of no true way outside of extremely heavy internet regulation, which would do more harm than good, that will even come close to solving it fully.

    1. Probably not. I guess our three options are sulking, panicking, or whistling "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."