Cory Doctorow on the veracity of news

Truth and the Net:

Trusting what you read on the internet is a dangerous prospect, but it beats the alternative. At least on the internet, you get to choose your bias.

You can’t trust what you read online. You can’t trust what you read in the paper. You can’t trust what you see on TV, or hear on the radio. You can’t trust what your friend swears her brother’s girlfriend said is true.

You can’t trust anything – not with the gospel, bet-your-life trust that you reserve for things like gravity and death and your family.

You never could.

Consider the raft of woo-woo magazines advocating the use of crystal pyramids to improve gas-mileage, conspiracy books about alien abductions, racist monthly newspapers, nutjob talk-radio hosts, and the thousand other ways in which the truth is mangled, omitted, or reversed by the press. It’s a truism that experts of all kinds wince when they see mainstream press coverage of their disciplines, anticipating the perennial clunkers, errors and mix-ups that characterize all generalist coverage of specialist subjects.

Wikipedia gets it wrong all the time. So do bloggers. But then, so do newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. The interesting thing about systems isn’t how they perform when they’re working to specification, it’s what happens when they fail.

Blogs, Wikipedia, and other online media fail gracefully indeed. When a newspaper gets a story wrong, it can take 24 hours to get a correction out – if it corrects it at all. There’s no ready way to link criticism of a newspaper article with the article itself. Certainly, you can’t make the edits yourself.

But if you find an error in a Wikipedia entry, you can fix it yourself. You can join the discussion about whether a blogger got it wrong. Automated tools like Technorati link together all the different blogs discussing the same topic, turning them into a conversation.

He said it better than I ever could. I can’t tell you how many times on forums I hear that Wikipedia and bloggers can’t be trusted, that they lack the reliability of mainstream news organizations. I can only assume that such people are smoking crack; anyone who thinks that the mainstream news is truthful, fair, acurate, or doesn’t suck monkey balls can only be smoking crack.

The key difference is that the blogosphere and Wikipedia process information with a recursive, evolutionary algorithm: the systems are inherently self correcting, and they’re brutally efficient processors of information. You can’t say the same of the mainstream press. There’s no way to correct a New York Times article, no way to challenge someone on talk radio, and no way to edit what’s on CNN. It’s only with the invention of the internet that their (glaring, often-made) mistakes can even come to light, though you still wouldn’t know it just by watching that media.

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