'Virtual Unreality' Helps to Sort the True from the False on the Internet

By al-Shawaf, Rayyan | The Christian Science Monitor, July 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Virtual Unreality' Helps to Sort the True from the False on the Internet


al-Shawaf, Rayyan, The Christian Science Monitor


"Because we're all able to produce such professional-looking information, it's getting harder to tell good from bad, professional from amateur, authority from ignoramus - and, even more alarming, reality from fiction."

So laments Charles Seife in Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It's True? Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the critically acclaimed "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," among other works. Strictly speaking, his latest book doesn't include much that's original, but Seife proves meticulous in amassing much of what we know about the perils of the Internet and explaining its significance for anyone trying to separate truth from falsehood. "Virtual Unreality" should be faulted for one major omission, but otherwise it is informed, nimble, endlessly quotable, and timely.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking parts of the book come in the form of the author's warnings about the possible ramifications of the Internet's emergence as "a great democratizer" of knowledge. The problem, Seife points out, is that "knowledge is inherently anti- democratic.... Facts are no less true if they're unpopular - and it's often the facts that the majority refuse to accept that are the most important."

Certain of Seife's premonitions sound a bit too ominous. "We are at the beginning of an information famine," he declares at one point. A little later, he adds that "over the next few years, even the news media may well become increasingly indistinguishable from spam." Take such prognostications with a grain of salt if they seem portentous, but don't fall into the trap of denying the myriad internet-related dangers that the author, in his characteristically deft and sometimes witty manner, highlights throughout "Virtual Unreality."

Consider reinforcement theory, which posits that we often gravitate toward information that seconds our views. Seife shows how the Internet has strengthened this tendency by making every conceivable argument and idea, however half-baked, readily accessible. He also points out that Internet web sites and search engines have begun to exploit our innate desire for reinforcement by recommending items that jibe with our previous searches or selections - for example, articles or books advancing the same argument. "With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices," he remarks, "we deprive ourselves of true information. We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back at us by the media."

Seife guides the reader through various manifestations of this phenomenon. Like Lebanese-French novelist and essayist Amin Maalouf, who, in his nonfiction book "Disordered World," bemoans the web's creation of "global tribes," Seife worries that the Internet has strengthened far-flung extremists by enabling them to establish contact with one another. But whereas Maalouf is interested in how people across the globe with the same ethno-religious "inherited allegiances" are uniting online, Seife shows how the Internet forges entirely new communities out of conspiracy-mongers and purveyors of scientifically discredited theories.

For the author, "the Internet doesn't represent a revolution for free speech as much as a revolution in free audiences." And media outlets have learned that in order to maximize those audiences, they must engage in "search-engine optimization." SEO, as it's called, consists of using simple keywords in your headline so that Google ranks your story first. Seife doesn't hesitate to single out media giant AOL for the sloppy, SEO-oriented journalism of its "Seed" project, as well as "turn[ing] the newsgathering process on its head" by instructing its writers (in a now notorious leaked 2011 memo) to build stories around keywords trending on the Internet. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

'Virtual Unreality' Helps to Sort the True from the False on the Internet
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.