Truth and Fiction 2.0


By Kyle Austin

Steve Hamm took a slight jab at me last week when I told him our new global practice is called World 2.0.  He’s tired of attaching 2.0 to all the subjects of this new digital universe.  So I’m sure he’d be equally rigid over me attaching 2.0 to this headline.  However, given the context of some recent high profile stories it seems to be fitting.   

Tim O’Reiley who originally coined Web 2.0 described it as: 

“The business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform.” 

It seems many of us are still trying to understand the truth and fiction that have become part of this platform and the media and business revolution.  This weekend’s New York Times Magazine took a look at the subject of internet-spread innuendo in a story entitled “Rumor’s Reasons.”  The story looked at the much talked about internet spread Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor.  Andy Martin, a popular Web columnist and wannabe Republican candidate for state office started the rumor by issuing a “press release” announcing that Obama had concealed his Muslim beliefs.  The unsubstantiated claim may have been completely disregarded by the mainstream media but it has lived on through the blogosphere and email messages. 

Although some would argue that the digital rumor / “smear” campaign hasn’t had an affect, I’d say it has. I was made a believer of the rumor’s traction in a 60 Minutes’ piece that ran on March 2nd.  In which, an Ohio voter as part of a poignant interview with 60 minutes’ Steve Kroft, disclosed that he wanted to vote for Obama but was slightly turned off by his religious beliefs: 

“I’m leaning towards Obama, but there are a couple issues with him I’m not too clear on. I’m hearing he doesn’t know the national anthem and wouldn’t use the holy bible. He’s got his own beliefs with the Muslim beliefs – A couple issues that bother me at heart.”  

When corrected by Kroft that the rumors weren’t true the voter was a bit mystified and stated that he was just addressing what he had been told. Farhad Manjoo, the author of the piece in the NYT’s Magazine, and staff writer for Salon.com, delves further into the psychology that goes into determining truth versus fiction and why the Internet presents a greater opportunity to blur the lines between the two – The hypothesis being that when a claim on the internet is refuted, it may actually lead to people further believing the rumor.

Consider, for starters, this paradox of social psychology, a problem for myth busters everywhere: repeating a claim, even if only to refute it, increases its apparent truthfulness. In 2003, the psychologist Ian Skurnik and several of his colleagues asked senior citizens to sit through a computer presentation of a series of health warnings that were randomly identified as either true or false — for example, “Aspirin destroys tooth enamel” (true) or “Corn chips contain twice as much fat as potato chips” (false). A few days later, they quizzed the seniors on what they had learned. The psychologists expected that seniors would mistakenly remember some false statements as true. What was remarkable, though, was which claims they most often got wrong — the ones they had been exposed to multiple times. In other words, the more that researchers had stressed that a given warning was false, the more likely seniors were to eventually come to believe it was true. (College students in the study did not make the same mistakes.)

The Muslim rumor proved to be an illustration of this.  Even as Barack and his team of advisors openly rebutted the claims and illustrated the inaccuracies of the rumor, it has continued to live on.  This leads me to believe that we could be looking at an even greater problem in internet inaccuracies.  At least the Barack rumor was initiated by a known figure, who had a known Republican motive to disparage Obama – Someone that could be singled out and rebutted directly.  If his story was absorbed and believed (In an NBC / Wall Street Journal poll taken in December, 8 percent of respondents believed Obama was Muslim) what then of a rumor made up by an anonymous poster?  One could imagine that an anonymous poster could create a very similar rumor with a lasting outcome.  All without being able to be directly rebutted or singled out for starting the rumor.  

Forbes took a frightening look at anonymity and the Internet in an October issue last year. It illustrated how singular anonymous posters and even mobs of anonymous posters were reigning free on the Internet and spreading rumors and gossip of innocent people, even the deceased.  In many cases the rumors and innuendo lived as truth, even as loved ones tried to curb the claims. Although not a laughing matter, College Humor has successfully parodied the idea of an anonymous mob attack in this video (imbedded above). 

Manjoo concludes the piece in the New York Times Magazine with a blanket statement that nicely sums up the Obama rumor, and the state of the Internet as a whole.

“There’s an arms race between truth and Fiction, and at the moment, the truth doesn’t appear to be winning.”

Scary indeed.

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