Deception in the Digital Age

As access to all kinds of information continues to flourish in the digital age, one must always keep in mind that not all information is reliable.  While this may seem obvious, it’s certainly easy to forget when scrolling through the unending news sites that populate the internet.  Any time we jump on the internet, whether it be from your computer, tablet, or phone, we are constantly being exposed to information (whether we readily seek it or not).  Given this constant exposure, it is increasingly important to avoid being like the woman from the State Farm commercial who believes if it’s on the internet, then it must be true (if you don’t watch as much tv as I do, here’s a clip so you know what I’m talking about: “State of Disbelief“).  As historians, as well as just informed individuals, it is part of our duty while using the internet to be critical of what is out there.  Just because someone posted something on a website certainly doesn’t make it a fact.

This idea of being critical of the information that one comes across in the digital age can be directly correlated to the arguments made by Errol Morris in his articles, “Which Came First?” (Parts 1,2,3,4) and “Photography as a Weapon.”  Morris mostly focuses on the necessity of being critical of photographs.  Photos are supposed to be the image that someone sees at a certain moment at a certain location; however that is not always the case.  Photos can easily be doctored to completely change the meaning of what the image shows.  Just as you shouldn’t always believe what you read on the internet, you shouldn’t always believe what you see in a photo, especially if it’s on the internet.  While the manipulation of photos is nothing new (it’s long been a form of propaganda) the ease and quality with which this manipulation can be achieved has improved dramatically.  A tool such as photoshop gives basically anyone the ability to manipulate images to suit a specific need.  These photos go up online making them readily available to millions of people in an instant and the odds are most people will see the image and believe it is valid.  As Morris points out, the caption associated with the image can just as easily be altered, thus completely changing the meaning.

This deception can have serious consequences.  When people see an image or read an article, it is usually with the assumption that what they see or read is true and thus can be added to their knowledge.  Even if one finds out later that what her or she saw was false, Morris contends that it is too late and that information has already been imprinted on the individual’s mind.  I consider this to be a serious threat to the benefits of open access.  All humans have a right to knowledge and the internet combined with the principle of open access makes that right much more attainable.  Yet the source of that knowledge should come from a reliable source.  This is where deception in the way of false information and manipulated images/captions can strangle knowledge.  There is no doubt that the internet strengthens the access to information, but we must consider what kind of information we are gaining access to.

In John Willinsky’s The Access Principle, he argues that much of the academic information that is extremely reliable is being kept away from the general public by way of subscription-based journals.  If this information, which has gone through the necessary rigors to confirm its validity, is not as accessible as information that doesn’t have to meet any standards then the information available to the public is not necessarily the kind of information upon which knowledge should be built.  I don’t see this changing anytime soon because just as everyone has the right to knowledge, everyone has the right to free speech.  Therefore much of the information posted on the internet will continue to be of debatable reliability.  What I stress to anyone reading this blog is to combat this threat by being critical of the sources where you get your information.  The first step to improving the significance of open access is to improve everyone’s awareness that some not all information is created equally.

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