Recently, Arielle and I have had discussions on where and how to get reliable information. Arielle depends largely on the electronic media, which I view with great suspicion. I’m a print person; a good part of my professional life has been spent working for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written books, articles for dailies, and stories for monthlies. I have an unabashed liking for paper, ink, print, bylines and fact-checking.
The gist of my argument is this: Can one trust information that can be anonymously posted, reposted, and then widely believed, when the sources of the information are unclear or non-existent and the intent of the posts is debatable? Do people who post or repost information on electronic media platforms routinely check their sources?
Let me add here that I am not referring to e-media versions of accepted publications like the Washington Post, New Yorker, NYT, or WSJ, though all of these have their own take and slant on the news.
A couple of days ago, I reposted on Facebook something that made sense to me, a number of statistics relating to reading in the United States. The figures cited matched what I had seen online and what I believed to be accurate, namely that fewer and fewer Americans read books. I agreed with the assessment that reading in America had fallen off in recent times. I failed to look for backup sources that would confirm my assumptions.
The posting was in the form of a rectangular graphic, at the bottom of which was a statement that would be hard to corroborate, namely that, “Reading one hour per day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in 7 years.” One hour, multiplied by 365, multiplied by seven, comes to 2,555 hours, plus one or two additional hours for leap years. Yes, I thought, anyone who spends that much time on one subject could well earn a doctorate and become an expert. This further assured me that the rest of the figures cited were accurate.
At the top of the article, I typed, “True Fact.” My friend Sarah Blumenthal quickly commented, “Actually, most of it isn’t,” she wrote, noting that “the stuff that’s based in reality and not made up is based on statistics from about 15 years ago […]. Reading among adults has been on an upswing for a while.” She attached a web address that challenged almost all the numbers cited, as well as the credibility of the source that first came up with the figures. I won’t quote these here; they’re at http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/9446.
I did not know the statistics I posted have been online for more than a decade. I didn’t bother to check them because they matched my beliefs. They were, effectively, fake news or, at best, outdated news passed off as recent findings.
I doubt that the established print media would have blindly printed and disseminated these figures. They would have checked and double-checked and possibly written an advisory notice to warn the readers of the figures’ lack of accuracy. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the numbers would never have appeared in the reputable press.
What it comes down to, in my opinion, is this: There are assuredly many trustworthy EM sites that accurately report the news, but online it’s hard to know what is reliable and what is not. Years ago, Reddit was. Now it’s a disseminator of unchecked nonsense. Breitbart repeatedly put out false information about Trump rivals and was widely read and quoted. Facebook, though it has made efforts to get rid of fake news, simply can’t control the flow. A November 14 article in the New York Times advised readers that both Facebook and Google were gearing up to combat fake news sites. This is as it should be, but such efforts won’t solve the problem associated with reposting inaccurate information, as I unwittingly did.