I am not sure if the people who are alarmed or sending warning on the future of the internet can be labeled as pessimists, or they are just timorous of the potential of the web. The BBC online today reports of one Sir Tim Berners-Lee worries about the spread and propagation of misinformation on the web. (For those who don’t know Sir Berners-Lee, he is the inventor of the World Wide Web). Sir Berners-Lee with others is now looking for ways to help people discern the integrity and reliability of the information contained on the web. A tough call.
I applaud this initiative and appreciate the difficulties in the nature of the task and its importance. But should we be ringing alarm bells? I don’t think so. While I acknowledge that, we should not think that all people making contributions on the web are people of goodwill, and that everything they post would pass Sir Berners-Lee’s trustworthiness and reliability criteria. I guess we should be moving toward educating the masses and especially the Internet community on the importance of verifying any suspicious piece of information through refereed means and channels. Without sounding pessimistic, I do not really think a movie-rating kind of approach is likely to achieve the desired results.
To argue my point, I will use Tim’s examples of conspiracy theories and cults. The American Heritage Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “a theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.” This is done intricately accounting for evidence presented either by showing of “the cover-up, which the conspirers are attempting, or “showing discrepancies in the received explanation.” (Clarke, 2002). Further, a conspiracy theory always seeks to deceive and always targeting the anti-elitists and populists and always have more visible evidence than the convectional elitist theory. Due to their populist agenda, conspiracy theorists are likely to convince most of the unquestioning and non-inquisitive minds against the conventional science, just like the case of MMR and LHC. (It is worth noting however that the original evidence of the link between MMR and autism was published in Lancet, a recognized scientific journal). What we get after a conspiracy theory, is either total silence from the mainstream bodies, or branding of the conspiracy theorists without providing evidence that would convince even the undecided. It would not be surprising if the conspiracy theorists come up with a good explanation as to why we should not use Sir Berners-Lee’s approach for authenticating web content, rather we should use their content as it has passed all the known tests.
Like a conspiracy theory, cult is a blind following that is also against the mainstream doctrines. One of the definitions given by the American Heritage Dictionary for cult is an “obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.” In the history of human history, cults and cultism have been known to exist – from the religious, political and social followings. That would probably explain why people would, for example, come out in numbers to support some politicians and political causes that are detrimental to the wellbeing of forward-conscious society. Take for instance the ongoing talk here in South Africa of people in some high offices claiming they are ready to kill if one of the politicians is convicted of corruption. Here, the blind masses have been indoctrinated to think that their preferred politician is being persecuted. While there seems to be conspiracy theories surrounding the case, I would want to think most of the people who are seen following the politicians are just cultist. In the same note, followers of any ideology would follow what they think (or are made to believe) is within their leaders – blindly. By implication, even if we rate web-content, we are unlikely to change their way of thinking or approach to life. They would not believe the ratings anyway.
So, exactly what can be done? The bulk of the work should be in educating the masses – creating in them inquisitive and questioning minds that will always seek to know the truth in neutrality following facts and ideas that are testable and can withstand scrutiny. Another tough call. But, it is my submission that if all the minds are inquisitive they will question the relationship between say the LHC, the Black Hole and the end of the world, or the relationship between MMR and say autism, or why following a certain politician or political ideology is in the best interests of their great-grand children. Perhaps this neutrality is what Jimmy Wales had in mind when he conceptualized Wikipedia. Are we likely to reach any semblance of neutrality in our discussions based on the facts and ideas on the ground? Very unlikely. That creates another catch-22 situation. Just like the two sales people, we will conclude different things given the same facts and ideas. But at least they are based on facts and ideas – not blind following, or naïve falsificationism.
Clarke,S. (2002). Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32(2), 131-150