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Honestly, The Internet

What do you get, asked Pavlov, when you ring a bell and then feed a dog? A dog that salivates whenever it hears a bell. And how long does it take to get rid of that response? A heck of a lot longer than it took to elicit it.

Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, we and the Internet are training one another to be worse than we could be.

The Internet launched in (roughly) 1969. Universities and select communities had access to more widespread use by the 80s, and HTML (hypertext mark-up language) made general use of the “world wide web” possible. By the 90s, use was extensive and growing.

And about a quarter century ago (that’s deliberately dramatic), Snopes was launched. Why? Because hoaxes, scams, and outright falsehoods were propagating as fast as the Internet itself.

Some of the growth of the hoax industry is simple: click-bait. If an advertiser pays for clicks to a page so their ad can get in front of you, the more clicks a content generator can attract, the more they get paid. “Remember Honey Boo-Boo? She’s so skinny now your jaw will drop!” Every once in a while you can’t help yourself – you want to find out what became of the Mouseketeers, or why the Royal Family is mourning. So, you click. The page fills up with ads. The actual copy is a badly written paragraph with a huge “Next” button beneath it (and a bunch of false flag arrows which, if clicked, lead to an advertisers site). You click three, four, five times – and still no real story or photo. Oops, I did it again.

Some of what we’re seeking is confirmation bias. “How dumb is (fill in the blank)? See his I.Q. for yourself!” So you click. “I knew it! Dumb as a stump!” But did you check the source? How many sources did you check? You post the story on social media, and it gets “liked” again and again by others who also want (fill in the blank) to be dumb. See? You were right!

And the more we do this – the more “viral” a story goes, true or false, the more the content providers will create another story like it that confirms our bias and gets us to click. In other words, the Internet has trained us to accept as truth what we want, and we have trained the Internet to give us more of the same.

Snopes itself, and other fact-checking sites, have come under fire for fact-checking parody sites, unwittingly falling for the joke of over-stated silliness or outright propaganda with “double-triple Pinocchio’s!” as a rating.

The need for attention has spread to our oldest and most formerly trusted sources of day-to-day information – television news and documentaries, and even print journalism. Our daily papers, as long as I could remember, had an editorial stance politically, and when I began in television, we had to keep a log of minutes candidates for office were given on our station, and give equal time to other candidates. Now, to attract viewers to your station or show, news networks have become blatantly political and “what the hell” and even the f-bomb are routine. On a news show. When Walter Cronkite shed a discrete tear while reporting the assassination of Kennedy, it was a touching moment of the man coming out from behind the anchor. Now, “anchors” tear up with actorly regularity.

But while television news is obvious, and even, in its own way, somewhat amusing in its glaring bias, the Internet has become such a go-to for our day to day information (Who was the actor who played Harley on “Lost?” How do I get to Mercersville, PA? How do I convert gallons to litres?) that we don’t approach it for things historical, political, and social with the skepticism we probably should. The more we simply trust a story and pass it along as fact —even photos and videos can be edited to appear “real” when they aren’t— the more the Internet content providers will serve us exactly what we want, and the less trustworthy it will become.

For my part, I simply examine the source, and consult multiple sources. If stories are wildly differing from one source to another, and if I can attach a point of view to a particular source, I can judge accordingly. With things less obvious, I try to take care not to hand it off to others as truth.

You are free to fact-check this article.

Nancy Roberts