Truth on the Internet

The best and worst thing about the Internet is that anyone anywhere can post whatever they want any time. It’s a great and horrible thing.

Recently, a few of my friends sent me an article they found online dissecting the dangers of drinking a particular soda that I occasionally enjoy.

… Ok, I drink a lot of this particular beverage.

The article itself was not a great example of stellar reporting or accurate grammar. The comments section of the article was filled with people questioning the author and pointing out flaws in his logic.

That drinking copious amounts of soda is bad for me is now reinforced. But the reporting discrepancies I found in this publication about pop bring up a real issue that I fear will only get worse in our culture: It is increasingly difficult to discern the truth online.

Wild, Wild Web

If you’ve never built a webpage before, you may not know how easy it is to create a site that can publish your words to the entire wired world. For less than $20, even a web novice can build a professional page complete with a classy-sounding URL and snazzy graphics. There are no background checks prior to checking out at GoDaddy — you can claim to be whoever you want to be on your shiny new corner of the web. After only a few minutes of setup, you could easily publish all kinds of buzzy headlines that might just end up on someone’s Facebook page.

“Scientist: Outer Space Actually Isn’t Real!”

“Donald Trump Claims Obama Was Never A Baby!”

“House Plants That Listen To Ariana Grande Grow Three Times Stronger!”

In 2012, the satirical news site The Onion published a comical article claiming that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was named the Sexiest Man Alive. The silly piece made ridiculous claims that most people would clearly and quickly identify as sarcasm.

But humour doesn’t always translate.

Soon after the article was published, the Chinese news outlet People’s Daily Online reprinted several of the comments as if they were facts. They published their own 55-page photo gallery to accompany the text documenting Jong-Un’s “impeccable fashion sense,” “boyish charm,” and “famous smile.” With a simple Google search, you can find several other humorous instances when The Onion fooled the general public with their satirical reporting.

But it’s not just The Onion. Just recently, the news site Politico came under fire for publishing some potentially misleading comments about presidential candidate Ben Carson. In 2013, several news networks had to backtrack after making claims about the Boston Marathon bombing that ended up not being accurate. Whether you’re reading The Onion, CNN, or random links from a friend’s Twitter feed, the line between “reporting” and “opinion” and “news” and “gossip” is increasingly thin.

To be clear, I’m not poking fun at anyone who has fallen for click-bait, and I’m certainly not criticizing the Chinese news media. My point is simply that it is really difficult to know who you can trust today — especially online.

So how can you know who to trust?

Think Before You Click

The answer is simple, but not easy. Be careful. Do research. Talk it over with people you trust. If you read something that sounds outlandish, don’t accept it at face value. Remember how easy it is to broadcast silly fiction. Before you post or retweet something you read, take a minute to check a few more sources. Even if it turns out to be true, assess your motive. Are your words going to be hurtful or misleading? Are you trying to further your cause without researching the opposing view? Would you be ok with someone publishing a similar sentiment about you or a cause you believe in?

Of course the Internet didn’t exist in biblical times (Or did it? Check your sources.). Still, I think several verses are helpful in this discussion. In Proverbs, Solomon warns, “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul instructs us not to think like children, but rather “in your thinking, be adults.” Possibly among the best advice for life in the 21st century also comes from Paul in Ephesians: “Be very careful then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.”

Whether you’re researching side effects of soda consumption, the attractiveness of Korean dictators, or maybe something a little more important, be wise. Double-check facts. Exercise discernment. I think you’ll be glad you did.


Photo by (flickr CC) Dennis Skley