The internet cannot be trusted, right?

Man looking highly skeptical

Distrust - Flickr image, CC by Reskiebak

Oh dear, yet another internet-bashing story circulating today, following Demos research. See this BBC report Is the internet re-writing history?

Since when were distortion, lies and propaganda a unique feature of the internet? You only have to look at reports of young people’s attitudes to sexual health to find that myth abounds in an area replete with online advice, face-to-face teaching in schools and regular articles in media that young people are supposed to trust.

Rumours and conspiracy theories have long been the fare of playground gossip – and of general public tittle-tattle for that mattter. Pamphleteers commonly wrote and distributed political and polemical tracts in (if memory serves me well) the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their accuracy then was no more (and no less) to be trusted than that of blogs and other informal media today. Indeed, you could argue that modern conceptions of libel may rein in some of the excesses then seen.

People believe the earth is flat, despite all the evidence that most of us (including Columbus by the way) would consider to the contrary. Often, people will believe what fits with the prevailing world view, so it is not surprising that the muslims students refered to in the Demos research had in mind the truth of reports concerning acts of terror.

(Muslims have had reason to be suspicious at times – see how Anders Breivik’s Norwegian attacks were briefly considered the work of Islamic extremists. That was followed, in many reports, by association with Christian Fundamentalism – which was only marginally less tenuous. Oh, and who reported all that? Yep, the ‘trustworthy’ mainstream media.)

I wish people would stop knocking Wikipedia!

I have used Wikipedia extensively in my past work writing articles for the (then) Becta TechNews service. While it is true that articles were of variable quality, the information they contained was, as far as I could judge from cross-checking, extremely accurate. Really, it is only when you look at areasĀ  of celebrity or significant controversy that you must tread warily.

Demos seem to be advocating teaching ‘digital judgement’ as part of the core curriculum. Not only do I object to people with particular hobby-horses trying to push even more content into an already overcrowded curriculum, but the problem is not digital judgement at all.

We need discerning young people able to make judgements (and research the ‘facts’) across all aspects of communication – from playground gossip to the great controversies of our age.

[Update: Link to Demos report]

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