Magazine article USA TODAY

The Internet Rumor Mill

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Internet Rumor Mill

Article excerpt

THESE ARE PRECARIOUS TIMES when it comes to getting accurate and fair news and information. Surveys show that nearly half the population, and 55% among 18-to 29-year-olds, claim the Internet as their chief source of news and information--and most of them believe that the websites they go to are reliable. Some 32% maintain that websites am their "most trusted" sources of news and information. This exceeds those who contend the same about newspapers (22%), TV news (21%), and radio (15%).

The dichotomy is that most people who get their news from the Internet go to the sources they consider reliable and these turn out to be traditional newspaper and TV websites. Yet, these same surveys show that most Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch with what they want from their news and two-thirds am dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in legacy media. Most of this skepticism comes from the public's belief that media companies are too large and powerful to allow for competition and thus skew the news in their favor.

One reason so many consumers trust the Internet is they believe that the diversity of sources gives them more options and places to find news and information. What most do not realize is that the basic sources of news still reside in legacy news organizations and that this wide diversity is something of a sham--thousands of bloggers and websites simply grab news and information from the basic sources consumers have relied on for most of the 20th century, such as The New York Tunes, Washington Post, and TV networks (or at least their websites).

The trouble is, there am no reliable guidelines set up for accuracy and fairness on the Internet. Anyone can say anything anywhere and what is said can spread like wildfire through cyberspace, scorching everyone in its path with misinformation, innuendo, and rumor. This is not a new phenomenon. In an oral culture of the past, it was commonplace. William Hazlitt, a British essayist of the late 18th century, summed up what everyone knew: "The public is so in awe of its own opinion that it never dams to form any, but catches up the first idle rumour, lest it should be behindhand in its judgment, and echoes it till it is deafened with the sounds of its own voice."

The deafening sound of inaccurate information can be heard throughout the Internet and, only when some conscientious blogger or legacy media gets hold of it can the rumor and misinformation be stopped. Yet, it still lingers in the cyberspace memory banks. Much of the misinformation happens in the natural process of newsgathering--facts change as a story develops; human error is common during a deadline-every-minute environment. However, there am tricksters out there who love to take advantage of the Internet to manipulate facts and opinions by purposefully putting out fake news stories and information to fool not only the public, but the news media themselves, and it has become very easy to do just that.

Dublin University student Shane Fitzgerald recently proved the point. He added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre after the French composer's death a made-up quote that circled the globe immediately. A full month went by and nobody noticed the fraud. So, Fitzgerald confessed all. "I am 100% convinced that if I hadn't come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Jane said instead of something I made up. …

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