A leap of faith

The advent of social media and dominance of the internet since the millennium has transformed the way many people gather and view information.  The term ‘Google it’ has entered the Oxford Dictionary.  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google are household names for many as either a first port of call for breaking news or as an avenue for further research; these sites combined with dedicated blogging servers have enabled the internet to develop into a hotbed of truths and mistruths.

Whilst the benefits of social media and the internet to modern society cannot be overlooked, a recent study by the think-tank Demos has shown an alarming number of people to be almost completely reliant upon information gathered from the first page of search results on Google, shunning traditional trusted news and academic mediums.  In a modern society where the dominance of the internet is assured, this is a worrying trend and one that needs to be confronted early so as to avoid future problems in a more politically diverse and internet driven world.

During their research, Demos interviewed a large number of students from different backgrounds.  Disturbingly, they found that around 25% of students did not validate the information they found by cross-referencing it with other more reliable sources.  Additionally, around 30% of the students believed that if listed on Google, the search results must be true – often it was not realised that such a complex search engine operates merely on algorithms which do not and cannot separate truth from mistruth without significant human intervention.

This ignorance and laziness in accepting as gospel the first search result on Google and YouTube has given conspiracy theorists a new platform from which to preach their often hateful and harmful beliefs.  For example, if you were to type ‘9/11, what happened’ into Google then on the first page of the search results there are many links to opinions and conspiracy theories surrounding the events that day; factual websites are present but they need to be identified using prior knowledge of what constitutes a trustworthy source.  The same is also true if you were to search for information about the death of Osama Bin Laden or the recent summer riots in Britain, for instance.

The presence of opinions and unverified information on the internet has its place in modern society; that is not in doubt.  To avoid being hypocritical this blog itself should be regarded as opinion only and not treated with reverence – that privilege should be reserved for trustworthy and verified sources.  For many it is a basic democratic right to speak and think freely within reason and without fear of prosecution.  Without Twitter and other social media the ‘Arab Spring’ and attempts to spread democracy in far-flung corners of the globe would have been severely hampered.  Likewise, politicians would have to find different ways in which to easily interact with the electorate, and vice versa.

However, whilst no one can yet say for certain that we are not part of the alleged ‘New World Order,’ trusted news and academic sources such as the BBC, New York Times and Reuters amongst others should be the first port of call for many people when looking for information and their daily news fix.  Social media and the first search results on Google should be treated with suspicion and regarded as opinion – not fact – until otherwise verified.  Left unchecked and uncontested, these often extreme opinions only serve to draw in more radical followers and create further mistrust of the government and traditional news sources.  In short, the increased development and use of the internet should be welcomed into modern society, but used only with the responsibility it needs.

Phone hacking scandals and bribery accusations aside, Western media and academia has a proven track record of being factually accurate, reliable and generally responsible – their reputations alone should be able to deflect the type of criticism they draw from conspiracy theorists and mistrusting activists.  Any talk of Western media being in the pocket of politicians should be viewed with contempt.  Whilst there will always be a certain marriage of convenience between politicians and the media recent critical coverage of the phone hacking scandal, fraudulent MP expenses claims and Western foreign military interventions shows that the media is largely free and does seek out the truth.

The same cannot yet be said with any guarantees for social media and search engines.  And until it is, complete trust should not be placed in what is freely available on Twitter or what appears on the first page of Google.

Reference:            http://www.demos.co.uk/files/Truth_-_web.pdf?1317312220


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