Truth, Lies, and the Internet

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Last week, a horrifying story floated around Twitter: A young man had been killed in a scuffle over a new pair of Nikes.

But when two Baltimore Sun reporters looked into it, they found that the story was a fiction. The sneakers attracted crowds, but no one was killed. It was a triumph for the traditional media, the ancient breed of sleuths who call people on the telephone and find out the truth.

A commenter on the tech site Slashdot picked up the thread: "What do we do when the Internet mob is wrong?" the poster asked:

After all, if one of the crowd discovered the error, the signal would barely rise above the noise. There are people claiming that anyone questioning the facts is being disrespectful. Is there something we can do about the mobocracy? How can we support the best traditions of journalism while fixing the worst? How can we nurture accuracy?

Sure, there is bad information all over the Internet, and because of the Internet, it can spread more rapidly. But it's also clear that the Internet is making fact-checking easier and more widespread than ever. Lucas Graves, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, notes that fact-checking is on the rise; mentions of "fact check" more than doubled in Nexis between 2004 and 2010. And, as one Slashdotter writes, any wrong Slashdot piece will be disproved in the comments, voted up in the site's unique commenting system. The good information is out there, whether it's provided by institutions like FactCheck.org or the denizens of sites such as Wikipedia or Slashdot. And when the fact-checking shop Politifact royally screws up its Lie of the Year, the rebuttals are everywhere.

A more interesting question is why, in this age of Google and Snopes, does misinformation persist? As a few of the Slashdot commenters note, plenty of urban legends that have been eminently checkable on Snopes for years continue to circulate. I suspect this can at least be partially explained by an intriguing theory of how the mind works, advanced last spring by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, two cognitive scientists.

There is a belief -- a myth, really -- that the human mind takes in information, and then reasons through it to produce ideas and opinions. But humans are notoriously poor at reasoning as it is conventionally understood, predictably falling into known traps, such as the confirmation bias (the tendency to absorb information that supports what one already thinks). Mercier and Sperber argued that the explanation for why human reasoning is so poor isn't because it's deficient, but because we've measured it against the wrong standard. Human reason doesn't exist to provide us with a more accurate picture of the world; it exists to structure and promote discourse, or what Mercier and Sperber term "argument." The human mind is better at spotting the flaws in someone else's argument than its own, and in groups or pairs can do much better on a variety of tests than when flying solo.

As much as we like to think otherwise, facts, at least according to this schema, aren't at the core of how we understand the world, but they sure are useful for rebutting the way other people do.

This is the reason why the Internet has brought a Golden Age of Fact Checking: The Internet is a medium perfect for rebuttals, and facts are the lifeblood of rebuttals. Snopes, for example, helps us refute a too-quickly-forwarded email, but few people would just browse Snopes to learn random things.

Mercier and Sperber's theory about how the mind works gets to the core of why we value accuracy in journalism and political communications: We use it as a proxy for credibility, because factual mistakes are the easiest targets for an argument to the contrary. Whether or not you have your facts straight is how we judge you -- as a politician, a publication, or a pundit.

But this is unfortunate, because accuracy is not always a good proxy for quality. Quality, however, is much more difficult to assess.

I have been a fact checker. I have scrutinized tens if not hundreds of thousands of words of text for misspellings and misplaced digits. Almost always, when a fact is wrong, you can correct it without so much as changing a word of the surrounding argument. What you're doing is inoculating the piece from the charge of not having the facts straight. But the piece can be just as wrongheaded once the numbers are correct. View-from-nowhere journalism or he-said-she-said reporting can be entirely accurate, but do little to help explain an issue or an idea, to say nothing of inspiring empathy or compassion.

We continue to believe that the truth will out and the facts will save us. We will have better information and make better decisions, elect better leaders, have better government, be better off. That's a pretty hopeful picture but not one that's in line with how humans -- or the world -- work. When you take Mercier and Sperber's theory to heart you understand that narratives, ideas, and ideologies are what fuel the world, not facts. For the Slashdot poster, the good news is that the Internet is nurturing accuracy. The bad news is that accuracy only takes us so far.

Image: XKCD.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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