Civically Engaging with Alex Zank

New age of instant information also means instant misinformation


Graphic by Karl Enghofer, The Spectator

Story by Alex Zank, OP/ED Editor

As the semester draws down to a close, and this marks one of the last times I will be writing this column (a sad day indeed), I would like to pass on some wisdom to everyone, starting this week with words of caution:

Do not trust everything you read on the Internet.

Before you say, “Well, obviously!” and quit reading, please consider this thought more carefully.

A lot of people have opinions on political issues. The Internet is a very cheap medium for someone to use as a soapbox. Designing and maintaining websites is becoming easier and more affordable.

Not to mention, this new technology makes it easier for ancient habits to thrive. People can choose to consume solely the information they agree with politically with greater ease than just a decade ago.

These things are foul ingredients to a recipe for disaster. Those looking for trustworthy content deserving of the title “political journalism” are more susceptible to deception. Hard-headed individuals are not being exposed to alternative views or lively debate, something vital to a democratic society with an informed electorate.

What makes this problem unique compared to even a few years ago is social media. Far too often I see images or links to stories on Facebook friends’ timelines that are either blatant fabrications of facts or misrepresentations of political arguments.

Social media misinformation woes are not limited to just Facebook. Reddit has an infamous subreddit /r/politics. (For those of you who do not use reddit, I’m not going to explain it. Start using it.)

This subreddit has some interesting links to articles, but for the most part — at least the posts that frequently get the most upvotes — are either about marijuana legalization or testaments to our nation’s political corruption.

Being a journalist, I’m not against reading or writing articles about these topics, but consuming information with such a narrow scope is dangerous.

The World Bank keeps track of Worldwide Governance Indicators. Two of the variables for the WGI dataset are control of corruption and voice/accountability. If you check out how the U.S. fares (regularly above the 80th percentile in both variables), redditors may be a little surprised. There is corruption, but not on the systemic scale /r/politics might have one believe.

And just a couple weeks ago, a reddit post linking to a (poorly written) article suggesting the U.S. is an oligopoly instead of a democracy garnered more than 3,000 upvotes. This is a sad testament to a person’s willingness to believe anything presented to them as long as it matches their political ideology.

I have a few suggestions to combat the spread of misinformation. Use trustworthy sources with good reputations. Traditional media such as NPR and the New York Times websites are a safe choice. If you are unsure of a newer or lesser-known website, however, do your research on it.

Also, do not trust any old thing your cousin Jim from Holmen posts on his Twitter or Facebook account. This advice seems obvious, but sometimes close relationships can be mistaken for sources of credibility.

So, fellow readers, keep this in mind in the future. In an era where anything goes on the Internet, we must be fully aware of what information we are consuming.