When the internet first arrived it was supposed to revolutionize the way we access information. Information was supposed to be at our fingertips. It has succeeded in doing so for the most part, but ironically, the internet has ensured that lies, half-truths, and distortions of facts are also equally accessible to us as actual facts from credible sources. This would not be such a big problem if people who were immersed in such myth and dogma lived in their own bubble in one corner of the internet. Many such myths are shockingly mainstream.
According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 29 percent of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim. This is despite the president repeatedly reaffirming his Christian faith. In other words, nearly a third of Americans believe the president is lying about his faith. Obviously no reputable media organization, even those with conservative leanings, would ever publish such unsubstantiated claims. So where are people getting this from? Maybe from the countless far right-wing websites on the internet that have made an industry of manufacturing conspiracy theories; which, would sound hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact that many people actually believe them. When it comes to conspiracy theories, the far right is not alone in propagating them. Recently while browsing, I came across a website called Goon Squad. It seemed like a typical left-wing website until I stumbled upon an article that listed the "top 10 lies" that the writer felt most Americans believed. I will just list two of the most telling ones here to rest my case:
1. Six million Jews died in the "Zionist version" of WWII
2. The attacks on 9/11 were a complete surprise to American intelligence agencies.
Needless to say, I immediately exited the website. It should be noted here that if I had not come upon this article, I may have believed what was written on this website. There was nothing to warn me otherwise when I entered it. How surprisingly easy it is to stumble upon these websites scares me. This is the reason I feel the internet has compounded the problem of spreading misinformation.
It has provided the conspiracy theorists with a much wider reach and an ease of creating content to spread their falsehoods which they couldn’t dream of before. Earlier a person with crazy ideas had the option of either writing a book or a column in a newspaper or journal. Any reputable publishing house or newspaper editorial board would think twice before allowing people with outrageous views to express them. The person would then either have to keep his fringe opinions to himself or publish them in an equally fringe paper/magazine which in turn would have limited circulation. So his views would remain on the fringes where they belonged and not come to the mainstream.
Contrast this with today where anyone with access to the internet can have their own blogs, anyone with a video camera can become a YouTube star, and can put out their content without any middlemen filtering it. Given the free and open nature of the internet, this content is now equally accessible to everyone. For example, the highly popular Alex Jones Channel on YouTube spews conspiracy theories and has over a million subscribers. An additional problem is that these people are not bound by any editorial guidelines like mainstream media is and can hence freely publish factual inaccuracies, distortions of facts, and even outright lies with impunity.
Unfortunately, their audience doesn’t care about such things. It is useless to even fact check them as they do not treat these as fact checks but as an attack on them for "exposing" things and double down. In a sense they are right. Even talking about them gives them a sense of legitimacy which they do not deserve. However, ignoring them as we have done so far has allowed them to flood the internet with their deluge of misinformation.
Now don’t get me wrong. The internet's ability to post unfiltered content and provide access for everyone is what makes it possible for dissidents in autocratic, closed societies to express, share, and spread their ideas. Authoritarian regimes can ban books and newspapers, but it is very difficult for them to ban thousands of websites, especially if VPNs are used. In fact, the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring were known to spread the way they did due to internet activism by tech-savvy young netizens. Just as the internet has allowed the free flow of good ideas, it has also allowed an equal free flow of bad ideas. No wonder ISIS is using the internet and social media to spread its barbaric ideology and win recruits.
How to counter this internet misuse? There is no easy way. On a personal level, it can be done by checking whether a website is a credible source of information or not before reading any article on it. On a macro level, there is very little that can be done. As the internet is a marketplace for the free exchange of ideas, no action, at least legal action, should be taken either. One can only hope that the people who have fallen prey to lies and myths accidentally stumble upon some credible site which challenges and subsequently makes them abandon their fairy tales and embrace the truth. After all, this is how many of them must have come to believe them in the first place.