The uses and abuses of information on the internet.

Quite a number of years ago, one of my sons rang me from university to sort out a computer problem he was having with his laptop. There was some urgency to it since all lecture notes and papers were by that time starting to be put up on the university intranet. After a half hour of the usual frustration of diagnosing and then curing a computer problem over the telephone, I fixed it and we had a brief chat. Towards the end of it he asked half seriously what did people do before the internet?

“Well, there used to be these things called libraries dotted all over the place …” I began, to which we both had a chuckle. I thought about it afterwards and when you consider the limitations of the printed book compared to digital media accessible by the internet, the slow demise of libraries containing books if not printed material in general seemed inevitable.

If the library didn’t stock the particular book you wanted, that was that. Community libraries catered to mainstream tastes, so if you were looking for something slightly obscure, technical or scientific, you already knew they probably wouldn’t have it. If perchance they did actually have it, it might already be out on loan, so you joined an interminable waiting list to borrow it.

The volume and variety of data in various formats in the digital age far outstripped what was available in any library. Instantly available from all across the globe, you had an almost unlimited number of books, papers, journals, videos and music, all of which could be discussed online with people who shared your specialist interest.

There was also the problem that you actually had to make a trip there physically and then go through a card index by hand just to find if they had that book anyway. Undergraduates spent a lot of time in university libraries doing assignments because it was the only way the reference books and papers they needed were close to hand. Faculty libraries looked more like scriptoriums than libraries. Nowadays, very few books are published which do not offer a soft copy option, and indeed some things are only published in a digital medium.

With the passing of the years and the near universal ubiquity of internet access, libraries are indeed closing down or struggling to explain to their funding sources why they should exist in the light of plunging attendances.

What has also become apparent with the passing of those same years are the serious downsides of holding data in a digital format which weren’t apparent at the dawning of the internet age. To be fair, these same problems existed in the paper age but to a much smaller extent.

For instance, more books are now available to the common person than at any previous time in the entire history of the world and that number seems to be growing exponentially. The downside to what would appear to be a very beneficial trend is a greater portion of these books are written by people who quite frankly don’t know what they’re writing about or are deliberately distorting the subject matter by means of omission or outright dishonesty for various reasons.

Leaving aside any putative discussion of plunging standards of integrity and honesty, the reason for this growth of rubbish books is strictly financial. It costs almost nothing to publish a book in a soft format. You write it, hand the content over to an internet service firm who’ll package it up into the various e-book formats and deliver it to Amazon for sale. The fees and commissions of the latter two parties are fixed, minimal and neither will lose money if the book fails to sell.

Paradoxically, back in the day when you could only publish a book in a paper format, the brake that cut down on the amount of rubbish was financial. If in the opinion of the publisher, the book you or your agent had sent to him wouldn’t sell, he wouldn’t buy it and therefore wouldn’t publish it. Your agent worked on a fixed commission and didn’t care if it was a good book or not, whereas the publisher risked losing money if it sat on bookstore shelves doing nothing more than gathering dust. In a sense, that publication threshold was roughly akin to peer review but a lot more bullshit free since real money was at stake.

If you couldn’t get it past a regular publisher, you got it published using what was known as a vanity publisher. Basically, you paid him to publish it and he’d run off a thousand copies or so, depending on how much you’d paid him. I can’t recollect an instance of a vanity book graduating into even modest sales. Your family and friends might buy a few copies out of loyalty or morbid curiosity, but that’d be that. The extent of any damage or urban myths propagated by the book were limited because it’d only be published locally.

E-books are essentially vanity publishing but without any financial brake since the costs are low, fixed and nobody stands to lose any serious money. The real damage being done by this type of publishing of misinformation is that it can be read by anyone in the world, therefore automatically magnifying the impact and persistence of whatever nonsense it seeks to promulgate.

Another subtle but insidious problem with this explosion in the number of books and publications is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a nugget of quality in an expanding Sargasso sea of published crap. They’re still there, but you just have to dig down that much harder to get at them through the advertising blurbs, phony reviews on Amazon and seeing through whatever spin they’re being marketed with.

It’s nothing more than a subjective feeling based on browsing bookshops of late, but I’d say that as the volume of rubbish has grown, the percentage of what I’d called quality reads has dropped.

In pre-internet days, if you published something in a book or newspaper which was subsequently found to be either in error or libelous, there was no way of realistically getting it all pulled from booksellers or news stands – it was out the door and now beyond your control. If the content was simply inaccurate, the publisher and you suffered a degree of reputational loss. If it was libelous, you could both suffer crippling legal penalties.

If an article looked risky, it went straight to a legal advisor who’d insist on double independent sources and rigorous fact checking of everything in it. In a libel action, the onus is on you to prove the veracity of whatever has been published, not on the plaintiff to prove it untrue.

Internet journalism grew from what was generally regarded as a juvenile and probably transient outgrowth of the mainstream news sources. For a while it was ignored by the mainstream and attracted only amateurs or mediocre people who’d failed in getting a job in the mainstream. This has resulted in a generation of third raters and incompetents becoming the establishment of online journalism and happily churning out whatever they like using a medium which has by now grown massively and outstripped the old media in terms of reading numbers.

What is also true is they’re the worst generation of “journalists” there’s ever been. Lazy, ignorant and totally at the mercy of their locked in groupthink just occasionally leavened by own particular bigotry. They rarely get up off their arse from in front of a computer screen unless they’re accepting some corporate freebee, and they’ve no concept of the difference between reportage and an opinion piece.

Their idea of reportage is to scour the internet picking out the facts which suit them, passively regurgitating official press handouts and stealing from each others work. In passing, they’ve also helped themselves to the work of independent bloggers, including on some occasions pieces of articles here.

All this sedentary activity rather than doing the simple thing of looking into it for themselves. This churnalism is how an item of fake news seems to spring up everywhere simultaneously. There used to be a site called churnalism.com which tracked this abuse, but it’s currently in stasis because of lack of funding.

When they do attempt an opinion piece, it’s all about what they feel rather than bringing any analysis or insight to an issue, and usually bears little or nothing by way of a connection to the underlying facts of the matter. The facts themselves may be garnered from fake news, but they don’t let that get in the way of a good piece of self-righteous indignation over something or other.

There is no financial inducement to be honest in online journalism, but rather the opposite, because denunciation and sensationalism attract the clicks which attracts the advertising and you’re not losing subscription revenue because there usually isn’t any such thing.

You buy a paper, you have to actually pay for it, which means that paper has to protect its reputation for integrity or sales will drop. If they’re caught out making up or misrepresenting the news, people simply stop buying it as the NY Times is finding out. As they lose purchasers, they also lose their influence with their advertisers.

I’ve only heard of one internet magazine Gawker being sued for a smear piece and having to cough up $140 million in punitive damages. Given the market cap of the magazine’s owner, I’d say they’re in bankruptcy or sheltering in Chapter 11 protection as a result. This trend of litigation in response to invasion of privacy or just plain libel is set to grow over the coming years. There’s simply too much money to be made by a plaintiff and there is too much irresponsible journalism based on nothing more than rumour or bald allegation without a scintilla of substantiating fact.

What’s worse is that in my opinion, all these problems with online journalism seem to have flowed back and been desperately embraced for survival by a declining mainstream media. As a result, they’re now all tarred with the fake news brush and deservedly so. Last year’s presidential election demolished any confidence people had in what were previously seen as bastions of journalistic integrity.

We have an incumbent President who talks directly to the electorate via Twitter or weekly video briefings straight from the White House because he simply doesn’t trust them and their hatred of him is only too apparent to all. On the increasingly rare occasions he chooses to grant them an exclusive interview, it’s only done so he can knock them off their high horse, because he knows ordinary people really enjoy watching a bully on the receiving end of a drubbing for a change.

They can tut-tut all they like but the basic situation is too many people have lost trust in them, and he doesn’t need them because he uses the new media to talk directly to the electorate without them getting in his way and distorting his message. Yes, Trump invented this method of totally circumventing the media, but make no mistake, it’s the way all politicians are going to be conducting communications with their followers in the future, and that’s territory the media are never going to get back.

What is interesting about their relationship with Trump is that even in the aftermath of his election, instead of toning down their partisan and almost hysterical coverage of him with hopelessly spun or what’s patently fake news, they’ve actually ramped it up even more. How dare he ignore us? Such behaviour illustrates perfectly their arrogance and the spoilt brat behaviour I predicted would continue six months ago.

The bad habits of the petulant child are by now too deeply ingrained.

When I’m researching something controversial, it’s my experience that a lot of the material masquerading as facts or data is simply lies to advance someone’s political agenda. The classic example of this is Wikipedia where not only have topics been edited to reflect only one interpretation, but also there are people like William Connolley who own editorial control of the topic and immediately reverse any corrections.

Wikipedia is a swamp with its co-founder Jimmy Wales appealing to people to end what’s called the editing wars over its content, but he’s also been caught out himself editing his own entry to conceal his previous business involvement in the porn industry. It’s no wonder that tertiary level educational institutions forbid its use by students.

A more subtle but pernicious problem is a link reference you may give to information elsewhere on the internet which was good at the time, is no longer valid because the content of the page may have been subsequently edited to say something totally different or even exactly the opposite, never mind disappearing altogether. The content of a book in your hand is immutable, but a web page can be changed anytime and there’s only rarely an audit trail of amendments.

To pose Lenin’s question but in a different context – what is to be done?

The currently suggested answer seems to be setting up some sort of central organisation which will helpfully advise people like Google on an impartial basis which sites contain fake news and should therefore be blocked. When you look at some of these organisations just itching to do the job and discover after a little research that they’re being bankrolled behind the scenes by shadowy creatures like George Soros – who they’re going to censor becomes alarmingly obvious.

Thank you, but no thank you George. There’s a reason certain countries have arrest warrants out for you while others are banning domestic organisations funded by you which they see as subversive. The left-wing already has control of sites like Google, Twitter and Facebook, so letting them ban everyone else would gradually drive dissent underground into the darknet where nothing can be banned.

Any internet organisation set up to rate the truthfulness of sites or to ban what’s termed hate speech, which nowadays means opinions you don’t agree with, will inevitably fail because of political bias. Any new news medium is always subject to the establishment trying to censor and control it, and the internet is no exception to that age old tradition.

There is an element of Darwinian selection at work on the internet. There are a lot of sites I’ve found either distasteful or deliberately dishonest, so I never visit them. As an example, I used to visit sites like the NY Times, WaPo, Guardian and view CNN on an occasional basis, but after their outrageously blatant fake news in last year’s presidential election, there’s no point since I don’t believe anything they say. If their name is on a link, I simply don’t click it because I can already see the fake news spin from the headline.

That’s not as such a boycott but rather the natural result of losing trust in a news outlet. Certainly with those particular businesses and a number of others, the circulation, click count and viewing numbers in a year’s time should be interesting. The only road back for them from slow decline is the classic one of improving the content, though I feel it’s too late since all the reputational damage has been done.

Once you leave the news business and are commonly perceived as prostituting yourself to become a mouthpiece for politicians and the establishment, you end up speaking only to the elite fringe of your chums because you’ve lost the trust of the mainstream. You lose consumer numbers, which means you lose your advertisers, which means your revenue drops, which means the layoffs, the cutbacks and the heartaches must begin.

This is not some remote threat to the lying press a year or two or five away, it’s happening right now. For April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a monthly upswing in jobs across most sectors of over 150,000 with one of the few exceptions being information/media, which lost 7,000 jobs. In March, the sector lost 6,000 jobs and in the previous month of February another 6,000 jobs. You don’t have to be a gifted statistician to spot the trend. The product they’re selling is deeply out of favour with what used to be their mass market.

The only brake I can see in this creeping corruption of news, journals, reference materials and any site offering supposedly authorative facts and data, is the consumer. Once they recognise they’re being lied to, they won’t use your product, even if it’s free. It’s an everyman experience that when a person finds out they’ve been lied to by another person, they’ll never trust them again.

For the Alt Right media, this is a golden opportunity for it to get off a pervasive defensive war footing and step aggressively into the vacuum of trusted news providers developing at this moment. If you speak to what the average person is actually thinking and do so in an honest, fair and unbiased way, you will pick up all those consumers the mainstream media are currently haemorrhaging.

©Pointman

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Comments
5 Responses to “The uses and abuses of information on the internet.”
  1. philjourdan says:

    bully on the receiving end of a drubbing

    That is the perfect image of what is happening to the media. The sad part is they do not realize it is happening yet!

    And you nailed it when you said:

    Once they recognise they’re being lied to, they won’t use your product, even if it’s free.

    I no longer use them. If something is reported in the NY times, I seek a second source to validate them. Failing to find one, I dismiss it as fake news. And the left hates the fact I am right a lot more often than I am wrong.

    The YSM will not realize they are worthless. They will continue with their image of self importance, even as those who read and believe them wither away.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Russ Wood says:

    On bookshops and quality reads – there are hardly any more independent bookshops in South Africa, and the previous chains selling books have reduced to one single bookseller chain. I’m a Science Fiction reader, but the number of SF (as opposed to fantasy) books arriving in SA are minimal. At one time, I accused the chain of simply buying anything with ‘dragon’ in the title! If I want decent SF, I have to download it from the US publishers, because Amazon won’t post books to SA, because of the unreliablility of the SA Post Office. But now comes the problem – how do I find out what’s available? OK, there are reviews in my SF magazine, but too often THAT doesn’t arrive in the post either!
    So, as you wrote, there’s a heck of a lot of stuff out there – but selection (news, books, anything) is becoming more difficult.

    Like

  3. Margaret Smith says:

    The Daily Mail, used to fake news and smear campaigns against it by the Guardian, expose similar tactics in the recent election here against the Conservatives and May in particular; nasty lies and personal attacks. Promises of endless freebies are tempting to the unwary.

    Children fall for it which is why I believe no one should vote before age 21 years (actually 25 would be better when the human brain is fully developed).

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Graeme No.3 says:

    The torrent of information resembles that when printing took off in Europe. Suddenly there were books, pamphlets etc. which didn’t present the ‘official line’. Neither governments nor the Church took kindly to this opposition and attempted censorship and repression, without much success. Those who, by working in combination, did manage repression did so at the cost of economic progress as the best and brightest citizens fled abroad. Nor could they control the press in other countries where they didn’t worry about anything that might upset foreigners.
    This unaccustomed freedom resulted in licence and a flood of scurrilous propaganda of doubtful accuracy, but that subsided as people grew tired of it and it was no longer financially supported. The smater idea of telling the truth about what readers could check and disguising your infrequent lies was adopted. “I won’t call my honorable opponent a liar and a crook, because that would bring me down to his level” but when he says …. sort of approach.
    Then some newspapers adopted an approach of sticking to verifiable facts, yet were outsold by sensationalist ones who relied on the increased income and the reluctance of the wronged to institute expensive and time consuming legal action. Esp. when damages awarded were often never paid.
    So governments having really worked out how to control the press in 500 years, so it might be some time before we, as a species, works out what to do. In the meantime we have to rely on commonsense and checking of the facts as best as we can.

    Like

  5. rapscallion says:

    ” If you speak to what the average person is actually thinking and do so in an honest, fair and unbiased way, you will pick up all those consumers the mainstream media are currently haemorrhaging.”

    Apart from the fact that the ordinary person is going to avoid media that has lied to them, they are also going to appreciate those outlets that tell the truth, however unpalatable it may seem. Moreover, people don’t appreciate their opinions being labelled “hate speech” merely because they disagree with the “orthodoxy”, and as was noticed during the Referendum and the US Election, that smearing and insulting such people always ends up with the exact opposite result of what you wanted. Why do the Left never understand this? The more the press calls my opinions racist, bigoted. xenophobic, homophobic, islamophobic and any other phobia you care to mention the less I’m likely to read it, and even when they do tell the truth, I won’t believe it anyway.

    This is probably why I’ve practically stopped reading papers online and go to the blogs instead.

    You reap what you sow.

    Like

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