It was never just a possibility. As far as I am concerned, it was an inevitability. A few months ago Gullible.info created truth.
No, it didn't make Truth. I'm talking about little-t-,-as-small-as-you-can-make-it-t truth. I'm talking about the kind of truth that says it takes years for gum to pass through the digestive system. The kind of bastardization of facts that exists only because there are enough people who believe it that for all intents and purposes it becomes true. The kind of truth that composes the Napoleonic definition of history: "a set of lies that people have agreed upon." This is what Gullible.info has finally made, a citable "fact."
From a June, 2005 post on Gullible.info:
- Emperor penguins are the most photographed Arctic animals.
- Egyptian politicians personally sweep the front stoops of constituents' homes during election season.
- A group of MIT students invented a board game based on chess that takes three days to play.
- Kansas has the most steakhouses per capita in the US.
- LSD guru Timothy Leary claimed to have discovered an extra primary color he referred to as "gendale."
He exhorted America to "turn on, tune in and drop out" and claimed to have discovered a new primary colour - which he called gendale. Now Timothy Leary, the eccentric spokesman of the 1960s counter-culture, is to become the subject of a Hollywood movie. source ;-)
Now you're probably wondering how you can be so fancy as to create truth, too. I mean, it's pretty useful to be able to create citable evidence in a pinch. Well, I've outlined the seven steps involved in the procedure:
- On a whim register a domain name that people will come to associate with only the highest caliber of information, I don't know, something like Gullible.info
- Load it up with fake trivia. The faker the better.
- Sit back and watch. Your work is done.
- An overeager, under-informed chap reads one of the splendid "facts" and puts it in a Wikipedia article.
- Wikipedia article seen by a lazy reporter who doesn't realize that their entire job is dependent on the vetting of information, regardless of the source.
- Let someone delete any references to your "fact" from the Wikipedia article because they can't find any legitimate citation for it.
- After the "fact" is published, someone will likely add it back to the Wikipedia article because, hey, it's got a citation, so it must be right!
(Note: I'm giving the Guardian UK reporter the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they got the information off of Wikipedia, if they got it off Gullible.info, we've got bigger fish to fry.)
All of these points represent a failure of information, on some level. Yes, the very first thing people will get up in arms about is the fact that it is my fault that this disinformation exists in the first place. I readily acknowledge and accept that. Of course I've wrestled with the moral ramifications of Gullible.info before. Consequently, that's why I didn't address that particular subject in this post. I would only be rehashing old material. Disregarding that aspect, it's important to take a look at this from the standpoint of information on the Internet in general.
I've said it for years: the nature of information is changing. The people who don't fundamentally alter the ways in which they interface with information will find themselves misled. Not just by Gullible.info, but in more serious ways by sites like MartinLutherKing.org -- a white supremacist group's website.
The safe thing to do is assume that any information you find online isn't necessarily wrong, but assume that it isn't very valuable. What does that mean? Basically it means that you shouldn't use it to make any decisions that could 1) cost you money, 2) damage your health, 3) etc, etc. It could be impeccably accurate, it could be completely off the mark, or it could be somewhere between those points. But the key thing is that you have no way of knowing for sure where on that spectrum it falls.
People are busy. And we need to have information that we can trust. That's why we pay for things. We pay for newspapers, we pay for news organizations. We pay these people to verify information for us. We pay them to make sure that it's correct. Of course just because we pay for something doesn't mean that it's necessarily true, but for the most part, it's a safe assumption to make that it's probably more true than false. That is to say, on our spectrum, the information they tell us is going to fall more towards the true side.
Now whenever we process information, we should run through a little check: what is the value of this information and what is the significance it will play in my life. For the most part, I believe that everyone does this already. Sure people will go to Gullible.info and erroneously believe that the Titanic was carrying 750,000 plates when it sunk. But 99.998% of people won't have their lives changed by that piece of incorrect information. It's worthless information, so people don't devote too much energy to verifying it.
Now here's where a major disconnect occurs: When information is published in a mainstream source, it becomes worth more. We make the assumption that they have standards of verifying information before publishing it. Now if that group it takes information at one value level, and promotes it to another without ensuring accuracy, it creates false value, and problems like this occur.
And it all comes together here. When you access information on Wikipedia, you are making a choice to trade breadth for minor cuts in accuracy. A distributed-editing system is inherently like this. The information you find there isn't necessarily wrong, and I'd go as far as to say that it's probably correct. Or rather, it's correct enough if you're just causally looking into a subject. The minor degradation of quality is more than recouped by the tremendous diversity of articles on the page. When you access information in The Guardian UK, you don't expect the same breadth, but you do expect greater accuracy. But to Wikipedia's credit, I was able to simply go in and edit the page myself, correcting the error that was mostly my fault. That's something I can't do with the Guardian.