Opinions Versus Facts Versus Misinformation
To keep this discussion on the level, let me tell you up front: Unless I show you a specific source for something, you can assume everything I write is my opinion, and nothing more. We are all entitled to our opinion, and having a blog happens to give me a place to express it. It doesn’t make me right, and that’s perhaps the point of this post.
Having been around the internet for as long as there has been a public internet, and quite a bit of time before that, I can say without a doubt that I am seeing a trend in our times that is most disturbing. The internet is clearly killing the print news industry, I have written about how newspapers were rendered almost irrelevant during the Boston Bombing deal, but there is much more to the situation than just that. Sites like Twitter, facebook, and various blogging sites are replacing news sites as people’s primary sources of information.
What is more disturbing is the longer term trends in both TV news and online news to move to combining “factoid” style reporting and talking head opinion shows. Factoid reporting similar to what USA Today pioneered with small pieces on unattached “facts” often shown as a graph or something, TV news often uses it as a bumper from commercials. It presents information without context, and seems often driven to frame the story that follows so that the narrative presented makes sense. Too often, it appears to be used to slant the following story, by presenting only one side of something, or to give slanted poll results like “80% of Americans think that…”, pretty much telling you that you should think it too.
The talking heads shows are even more scary. Foxnews pioneered it, making their entire prime time into nothing more than slanted conservative opinion, and MSNBC and others have followed. Even the relatively staid BBC has more and more “talking about the news” pieces these days, it’s pretty scary. These talking heads also tend to run blogs and personal opinion sites, and this is where the real harm has been done. These people generally don’t quantify their stuff as opinion, rather they play in what Stephen Colbert would call “truthiness”. Basically, you take a small piece of truth (sky is blue) and work from there (the blue is a reflection created by Obama as an excuse to seize your guns!). The basic truth (sky is blue) is used to hang the opinion on.
Blogs and opinion sites are worse. There are plenty of people out there with axes to grind and a single mindedness about the topics at hand. From gun control to copyright, there are zealots out there more than willing to play the truthiness card to try to make their points. It wouldn’t be so bad if people in general could filter this stuff, but apparently they can’t. What happens is the “facts” they create end up getting caught up in the internet echo chamber, and some people really do believe things to be facts. An example is that according to this survey, 17% of American voters think that Obama is a Muslim. Or perhaps combining that “fact” with the concept that 30% of Americans feel that an armed rebellion is needed… all from the power of misinformation and misdirection by people playing loose and fast with “facts”.
What has happened with the internet and opinion site blogs is that it allows people with very extreme positions to have their voices heard, and to influence others with more moderate beliefs into joining their causes. It creates a horrible situation where much of the Western World is operating in near open civil war, as groups who support and oppose issues don’t just debate, they draw hard lines in the sand and threaten “action”. In many ways, these people have become the domestic terrorists that we all fear, willing to hurt, kill, or take control of things for themselves to make the rest of us understand and do it their way.
Democracy will eat itself, and someone will blog it and get it wrong.