Preventing the age of misinformation

Preventing the age of misinformation

The age of the Internet has given people around the world instant access to information. Unfortunately, this has also created the ability for news to spread so rapidly that journalists are in constant competition to broadcast first. False “facts” used to disperse themselves slowly through chain emails that would only be shared by the oldest technologically-competent generation, but Facebook today easily allows the words in bad headlines to be skimmed without need for support. I implore college students, especially due to their affinity for education, to thirst for the truth rather than being satisfied with shock-value.

Just recently, Outside online magazine published a stylized obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. Immediately I saw several acquaintances on Facebook express their regret and disappointed over never getting to enjoy the natural beauty themselves. Although with a little scientific knowledge or even a developed knack for Google-searches, it would be immediately apparent that the Great Barrier Reef has not “passed away.” The purpose of the article was to raise awareness and instigate action towards protecting the vibrant ecosystem. The urgency expressed was ashamedly overlooked by most due to the “Share” button’s proximity to the byline, the lack of research leading to the online community missing the point.

I probably need to take this opportunity to thank my mother, often answering my inquisitive questions surrounding hot topics by directing me to “Snopes.com.” Since then, every rumor about Justin Bieber led me to do my own research. For a long time, I could not believe how students my age could believe so many lies on the internet when a wealth of information was available at our fingertips but then I realized they were only part of the problem.

The other half of the blame lies upon the news reporters in this country. The competition to break a story comes without regard for the truth when fact-checking takes more time than what it takes to type a 140-character tweet. I have seen updates posted every ten minutes to a page reporting a pivotal event, but those who read the story early on are rarely found checking for new facts.

I understand that the need for instant information will likely never cease in this society, but we need to hold each other accountable. Integrity used to hold a place in the world of journalism, but it appears to have disappeared. News of any kind should not be reported without information that has been thoroughly checked to at least attempt truth. This means that at any point, the published text should only contain things immediately known, online news sources can be edited easily as new updates arrive.

Increased integrity from journalists is not the only way to solve this epidemic of misinformation. I encourage my peers to take a stand when they witness gullible posts online or statements in person, sharing their supporting facts with others in order to inspire a healthy suspicion. The least you can do when you see a click-bait article is a simple Google search before you retweet. 

Sarah Howard is a junior majoring in chemistry. Her column runs biweekly. 

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