Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Someone Is Wrong On The Internet - Why That Matters

On t'Internet I could save you all a long read of a rant-y post by simply stating,

"Spreading falsehoods is damaging to individuals and groups. Permitting this to proliferate consolidates the lies and makes them hard to counter, particularly when there's a strong emotional hook.*"

There you go, we can all go home now. Except that trivialising the fact that untruths are being spread around packaged as facts is one of the problems one has to contend with when attempting to counter misinformation. I really can't win, can I?

In any case, it's not about being wrong on the internet, it's about being wrong. It matters because, if enough people accept that wrong information, it becomes a matter of common sense and therefore accepted as truth, no matter what, because everyone else accepts it. Okay, how do YOU explain UKIP sweeping the board in the last election? They're Tories on steroids, damn it!

Wrong and wrong-er

Saying, "It's wrong on the internet" implies that "it" is a trivial matter and that anyone who challenges "it" should really get out more. What happens when "It's wrong on the telly," or "in the newspapers/other media?" Are they trivial, too? No, actually. But apparently we shouldn't trust everything we read in the paper so it might matter a bit more, but not that much, the reason being that anyone can access the internet if they have a connection to it. We can't all own our own newspapers — particularly if we want the reach the biggest ones have. And that's the thing: the ubiquity of internet pundits and the speed at which ideas can spread means that any opinion can get an airing — and an audience — as long as people are willing to share it. It's a bit of a popularity contest and depends on what mood people are in.

Wrong but kinda sorta not wrong

The viral story of Johnny and Taelor I linked above is a case in point; when people still had loved ones posted overseas "Brazen adulteress seeks booty call with clean-livin' Mormon good ol' boy" was too big to fail because it hit a nerve. When people started to expose it as a fake and the backlash kicked in, he deleted the original post. However, the damage was done. The innocent woman whose imaginary antics were posted on FB for the world to see had to get off the internet to escape the righteous indignation of of the ignoranti, and people began to take sides, often admitting that it was the principle, not the facts, that had them up in arms. Deleted from Johnny's FB, along with the image of him bathed in golden light, the story of Johnny and Taelor continues to circulate as a cautionary tale.

Corrections and causation

Would you sacrifice your kids to him?
Truth matters. Only recently I read on Techdirt about two preteen girls who pretty much tried to sacrifice their friend to some kind of mythical being, unaware, it seems, that Slenderman is a fictional character created on the Something Awful forums to wind up paranormal enthusiasts. Had someone declared, "Slenderman is a fictional character, you muppets," and linked to the proof, perhaps a little girl wouldn't have ended up in hospital with 19 stab wounds. Mind you, per the complaint, they WANTED to believe it and to prove the skeptics wrong. Might providing them with the link to the Something Awful forum where Slenderman was born as part of a "Create a paranormal image" contest have prevented the attack on PL?

In the furore surrounding it the "Block it and ban it because ." brigade have come out in force to denounce the Slenderman phenomenon. They are wrong because it's not the character or the made-up mythos that's the problem; two little girls wanted to stab someone. That's the problem. I submit as evidence the lack of other people of any age murdering or attempting to murder each other over Slenderman. It's important to get the truth out to counter the flurry of censorious activity that has already begun over this. In any case attempting to ban it has caught TD's attention, and therefore mine. I'd never heard of it before.

Challenging the accepted version

Well this is where we're headed, people; I believe it is our duty to challenge misinformation wherever we see it. It DOES matter, and it matters every time. If you're not willing to challenge someone over a minor issue, what will you do when you see an egregious lie? Will you speak out then or sit back and hope someone else will do it?

I don't go after everyone for everything but damn it if I see someone advocating for a violent revolution I'm going to say it's a waste of time, they'd end up in prison on terrorism charges, hopefully preventing something nasty from happening. If I see a comment advocating free market/laissez-faire economics as the answer to austerity, I'll point out that reliance on "the market" to solve our problems is the REASON for austerity. And believe me, if I see someone bashing Derek Khanna for advocating copyright reform, I'll hop in there and act as his wingman. The combatant might not change her mind but onlookers might.

Why it's worth the effort

The whole point of challenging someone who is wrong on the internet — or anywhere else, is not to win them over — you probably won't — but to provide the audience with an alternative narrative that they can choose to accept or reject. You might not be able to change the world by arguing on the internet, but if you can change someone's mind, that's a start.

*Ask that poor ballerina whose photo was used as the fictional trampy military wife how having her image hijacked worked out for her.

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