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The Two Questions Everyone Should Ask When Surfing the Web

We sit with our laptops, tablets and smartphones. Our fingers twitch in anticipation as we start scouring our emails, bookmarks and social media pages to see what we missed since last logging on, even if that only was a few minutes ago. We click, then link, then like, on repeat.

The Web is Like Whisper Down the Lane

Of course there is no harm in sending or receiving dozens of YouTube cat videos, or blooper clips from local morning talk shows. But as we mine the Web for news and information that influences how we vote, what we buy or even how we diagnose our symptoms, we often find ourselves in a perpetual version of that wonderful childhood game, Telephone. That’s where someone starts a conversation, whispers it to another, and it goes down the line until the last person blurts out what he or she heard. What makes it so comical is that it usually has but a faint resemblance to what the original speaker said or meant.

The Web is like Telephone on steroids. By the time we process and repeat information gleaned from it—whether online or at the water cooler—we only may have the slightest memory of where we first encountered it. Even if we do, we often have little way to understand its veracity or context. The phrase, “I saw it on the Internet,” is all too often uttered as a reassurance that if something appears online, it must be both real and worth repeating.

The Internet’s Abundance of Information Can Still Fall Short of Reliable Facts

This concern has larger public policy implications, as well.  For example, a recent New York Times piece summarizing a forthcoming Virginia Law Review article by Professor Allison Orr Larsen, a College of William & Mary law professor, illustrates that in a growing number of cases, the US Supreme Court reflects this same unfortunate phenomenon. “Some of the factual assertions in recent amicus briefs would not pass muster in a high school research paper. But that has not stopped the Supreme Court from relying on them. Recent opinions have cited ‘facts’ from amicus briefs that were backed up by blog posts, emails or nothing at all.”

Years ago, in another context, my colleague Newton Minow (the former FCC Chairman who famously said that television was a “vast wasteland”) offered me a pearl of wisdom that I think about whenever I am online, sending or receiving something that affects how I think or act. He taught me the importance of two questions that now have special resonance in our digital lives.

  1. How do you know that?
  2. What does that mean?

A Credible Source

The first question deals with what journalists or law enforcement officers might term a credible source. Where does what you are reading or viewing come from? Is it based on a reliable first-hand account or something someone relayed in a “game” of Telephone? If facts are presented, where did they come from? If an opinion is advanced, what is the basis for it?

Context Matters

The second question assumes that this initial credibility bar has been met. It focuses on what the source was trying to convey. Is this something to be taken at face value? Or is it communicating a different meaning by using ambiguous words that are subject to multiple interpretations? And if so, which of these meanings is the most plausible one? Of course, this question also is useful as a snark filter, since so much of what we respond to and share with others is ironic, or as many would say, post-ironic.

Much of the Web’s future, both commercially and otherwise, will be built around the idea of curation—finding and relying on aggregation sources that we know and like. These may help us manage an otherwise endless flood of information for rapid consumption, but the two questions, slightly changed, still are worth posing, whether for the Huffington Post, BBC News, TMZ or another online outlet. How do they know that? What do they mean?

Individually and collectively— including in our halls of power — these questions will help us feel more centered in thinking about the veracity of what we read or watch online. It’s useful to remember them along with your password before you log on again today.

Author

Stuart N. Brotman

Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law and Beaman Professor of Communication - University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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