Anyone with a little determination can build a website, set up a Twitter account, and position themselves as a trustworthy corporation. We as users may be spending too little time considering the objectivity and sources of the information we receive and believe.

My son (a twelve-year-old gifted student and self-proclaimed gamer) and I were discussing trust on the Internet. He is in middle school and in the early stages of developing his junior researcher skills.

Hoping he had learned a thing or two about researching an idea and trying to find reputable information, I asked him how he knows if something he finds on the Internet should be trusted.

He confidently explained that the best way to know if something is true is to look at the search results page. If there are several entries that appear to support a particular idea, then most likely it is true. He also shared with me that one of his teachers reassured his class that Wikipedia is a trusted resource because they only let people with PhDs become editors on the site. I thought “Oh, crap.”

To set the record straight, a PhD is not in fact a requirement to be a Wikipedia editor. According to the Who Writes Wikipedia? page on the nonprofit’s site, all it really takes to be a Wikipedian is a little bravado: “Yes, anyone can be bold and edit an existing article or create a new one, and volunteers do not need to have any formal training” (Wikipedia, 2017).

When I tried to explain that much of what we see is being presented to us algorithmically based on a code developed by someone at a corporation such as Google, my son assured me that the people at Google can be trusted. I asked him why he would trust people he has never met, and he responded, “Why would they lie to us?”

Michael Patrick Lynch discussed this idea in his 2016 book, The Internet of Us, writing that “an organism’s default attitude toward its receptive capacities—like vision or memory—is trust.” Meaning it is natural for people to trust what they see or what someone is telling us, our default is to believe.

Lynch also explains that if we are not knowledgeable on a topic, we may choose to look for answers from someone with expertise in the domain, but he stresses the need for reference checks.

Of concern is how we consume information today. With more than 60 percent of adults getting their news from social media, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, it is important that users understand that not all facts are checked and that there is no governing body for the content published to the Internet.

Lynch makes the point that “digital media gives us more means for self-expression and autonomous opinion-forming than humans have ever had. But it also allows us to find support for any view, no matter how wacky” (2016). This last bit is the concerning part because it suggests that no matter what your particular truth is, “no matter how wacky,” you could find verification for the idea on the Internet.

On November 19, 2016 Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, posted a message to Facebook users about “misinformation” on the site and outlined what the corporation plans to do moving forward to reduce the prevalence of fake news within the social media network:

The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically. We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible. We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.

I don’t believe we have the maturity as a species to reason through all the information that is being presented to us in a logical, fact-finding way. We used to pay people to do that for us—they were called journalists. Today, we are still believing information the same way we always have and perhaps are taking it at face value and swallowing it whole. Is this ignorance or laziness? Both? Neither?

Next Read: Who and What Do We Trust?

References:

Lynch, M., P. (2016). The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. Liverlight Publishing Company. New York.

Wikipedia. (May 4, 2017). Who Writes Wikipedia? Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Who_writes_Wikipedia%3F

Zuckerberg, M. (November 19, 2016). Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103269806149061