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A critical mass…not critical enough

2011 May 4

The truth is NOT as obvious as the sun

Can we trust information that became quickly popular on line? What is the accountability mechanism for the crowd? When something is tweeted and re-tweeted, then blogged, then posted on facebook by thousands of people so that the information message is far from the original person who posted it, multiplied by thousands of other messages. Maybe even far from the actual event.  Maybe there wasn’t even an event. Like in this famous quote of Martin Luter King Jr. Famous now, because he never said the first part of it and despite this it was attributed to him by “the cloud”. The quotation is:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have learnt from Wikipedia that information is controlled by thousands of eyes. We believe that the cloud is made of actors, maybe factions, that balance themselves out until we get to a good approximation of reality. We assumes that all these masses gravitate around a big bright center of gravity where truth lays and they are working toward reaching the “truth”. We believe this final truth is less biased toward specific perspectives precisely because it is averaged out and corrected by so many people that we cannot even imagine the existence of a “plot” or a “mastermind”.  I am sure there is not mastermind. But there is also no professionalism. A “cool” quotation, or fact, can spread so fast to achieve a critical mass and believed true. If in this super fast word speed is at the essence, what is the space for a critical approach to news? Is it too time consuming?

Who is controlling that the self-adjusting mechanism is always in place for every little bit of information? Who is checking that the final result is of an acceptable quality? During my masters every student would go on Wikipedia to look for information because it is easy to access and somewhat trusted because of the aforementioned self adjusting mechanism. However, our professors clearly stated that Wikipedia is not a trusted source for writing a paper.   Then why twitter and other social media are considered reliable for daily news?

There is another interesting case. When  Zick Rubin googled himself, he discovered that according to internet he was dead. When he corrected the mistake on line, somebody else overruled his correction and he was virtually dead once again. Eventually, with  lot of personal effort and interaction with the managers of the website he could come back to life. What if he hadn’t insisted? What if this was not a easy to verify fact (he was clearly alive) and close to his hearth (he did not want to be declared dead). How many little information have already been created or distorted by the crowd and we do not even know!

This is not to praise established journals and information professionists, they also make mistakes and some of them distort information on purpose. Left and right wing journals in every country will present a fact according to their perspective. But these are known mechanisms. A few journalists will base their fame and fortune on their specific point of view and this is not bad. There are direct and explicit accountability mechanisms in place and we can chose whether to like a specific journal or journalist or not. What’s the accountability of the cloud? Should we check every bit of information? How?

The Martin Luther King Jr quotation is a case with an happy ending. Among others, Megan McArdle realized there was something wrong, a few people google the sentence and found out what happened. Maybe we are also very close to pinpoint the name and surname, and obviously facebook profile, of the person – apparently Jessica Dovey- that started this movement. Order is restored, truth has been found. Will this virtuous circle restore order ever time. We will know every time order is restored but we will never know all the cases when it does not happen (otherwise we will restore order ourselves, right?).

I have more questions than answers. Like you I am learning about this phenomenon, in fact we all are. And I finish this reflection a bit confused myself. Is this article even true? Are you sure the world is aware you are alive?

Thank Mashable for this great picture


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