The disinformation highway
Is the internet a haven for chancers, spoofers and liars, as a new book claims? Or is it a truly democratic work-in-progress? Damian Corless reports
Last month I got a phone call from my bank. They'd spotted an "irregular" transaction on my credit card and they wanted to check if I'd splurged €4,500 on a diamond from an online jewellery store.
I assured them I hadn't and they told me not to worry, as the bank (meaning their customers) would absorb the cost of the internet fraud.
Last week the sinister side of the internet resurfaced again when a new form of extortion reached Ireland from cyberspace.
A number of people reported to gardai that they'd received emails from a man claiming to be a “sniper” demanding their money or their life.
The “assassin” claimed that he'd been hired to kill the recipient of the email.
However, having tailed the intended victim, he'd satisfied himself that they didn't deserve to die, and he'd call off the hit in return for a large pay-off.
The scam sounds so preposterous as to be comical, but the capacity to inflict terror on a gullible recipient is clear.
A host of related episodes are gathered in The Cult Of The Amateur, a new book by English author Andrew Keen which makes a sweeping attack on the culture of the internet.
Keen, who is based in California, hits the usual soft targets from pornography to online poker, but his main thrust is that the web is dumbing itself down by replacing the authorative knowledge of experts with the flawed “wisdom of the crowd”.
He selects as a prime culprit the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which relies upon volunteer editors and contributors. Wikipedia gets far more traffic than the website run by Encyclopedia Britannica, which relies upon experts and scholars.
The problem is that the interactive format employed by Wikipedia opens it to postings that are inaccurate, unverified and even downright fraudulent. It recently emerged that a contributor using the name Essjay, who had edited thousands of Wikipedia articles and had been given the authority to arbitrate disputes between writers, was a 24-year-old chancer named Ryan Jordan, and not the eminent professor he claimed to be.
So, on balance, is the internet to be embraced warts and all, or treated with the greatest suspicion?
THE CASE AGAINST...
Any information gleaned from the internet must be treated with suspicion. Wikipedia is simply the best-known knowledge bank but it's open to abuse, distortion, disinformation and the input of idiots.
The distinguished White House aide, John Seigenthaler, was infamously slandered in a malicious Wikipedia biography which named him as a Kremlin spy and implicated him in the murders of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy. In The Cult Of The Amateur, Andrew Keen points out that the most popular search engine, Google, answers “search queries not with what is most true or most reliable, but merely what is most popular”.
Search results can be manipulated by “Google bombing” which “involves simply linking a large number of sites to a certain page to raise the ranking of any given site in Google's search results”. The Irish have proved very adept at warping the web.
In 1999 Time magazine conducted an internet poll to find the Person Of The Century. A lobby group from Ireland got to work with the result that footballer Ronnie O'Brien, a former supermarket shelf-stacker from Bray, shot to the top of the ratings, overtaking such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.
When the magazine bumped O'Brien off the list, he was swiftly replaced by Dustin The Turkey who polled over 1,000 votes more than Adolf Hitler.
The same distorting effect came into play in 2002 when a version of A Nation Once Again by the Wolfe Tones beat John Lennon's Imagine when it was named “the world's most popular song” in an online poll run by the BBC World Service.
Back in 1968, when the internet was in its infancy and still in the hands of the US military, Senator Ted Kennedy heard that a local Massachusetts company had won the contract for an ”interface message processor”.
He sent off a telegram congratulating the firm for their ecumenical spirit in developing their “interfaith message processor”.
Four decades on, ecumenical is possibly the last word we'd use about an invention which has become synonymous with Islamofacist beheadings and bomb-making sites, Christian fundamentalist intolerance and hatred, Nazi memorabilia stores, child porn exchanges, and mindless idiots filming themselves doing mindlessly idiotic things for posting on YouTube.
It is the rise of YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia and the other do-it-yourself newcomers that remain the cause of perhaps the most concern, as they steal ad revenue away from the conventional media which pays journalists, scholars and researchers to ensure that the information they impart is based on fact, and is more than the hodge-podge of half-baked opinions, prejudices and half-grasped factoids that increasingly pass for knowledge on the web.
Be careful out there.
THE CASE FOR...
Andrew Keen rails against a future where knowledge has become a debased currency and where we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising”.
This is what happens, he insists, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule”.
Well I've got news for Andrew Keen. That world is already here without switching on your computer. Turn on your TV or radio and you'll find that Bruce Springsteen's prediction of 20 years ago has come to pass where there's “57 channels and nothing on”.
Keen argues that “what the web revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgement”.
He's absolutely correct. The information we download from the web is not to be taken as Gospel truth. It's worth remembering that the four Gospels were carefully selected by the early Church from a raft of conflicting stories in order to convey a certain slant. Nothing much has changed.
The internet is a wondrous resource which has revolutionised how we work, how we communicate, how we shop and how we tap into ideas which were previously closed off to us because of distance, culture or censorship.
The internet is a work in progress and it is challenging existing standards, in numerous ways barely imaginable 15 or 20 years ago. At its worst, it is indeed a place “where ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule”.
It's also the miracle of the age, the uncorked genie that can't be put back. It's a great boon, but handle with care.