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Photo by Joey Shea
Photo by Joey Shea

The Internet: A Cautionary Tale

Photo by Joey Shea

The world of technology allows for the rapid dissemination and absorption of information. In under five minutes, one can easily navigate the day’s fashion trends, celebrity gossip, weather forecast and world issues. Although this is certainly useful, and time-efficient, it is also reductive. Through media servers and social networking sites it has become all too easy to snap up snippets of cleverly worded one-liners and regurgitate these supposed facts in a Facebook status, multiple Twitter updates and text messages. Information sharing is not a negative thing, the facility of attaining information is perhaps one of the most positive aspects of these fast-acting communication tools. But, the issue lies at the source – where does this information come from? How accurate is it?

Any sceptical newsreader knows that some sources are more reliable than others, and that all news sources contain a bias that should be both understood and taken into consideration. When composing an academic paper, or conducting any kind of serious research, it is important to consider a multitude of sources before being able to clearly answer the question at hand.

As human beings, we are more interested in information than its sources. In other words, the credibility of the sources is ignored and the information is taken for fact. The psychological theory called the “sleeper effect” explains,

“We may forget things such as source details after we’ve slept on the message. Subsequent research has found that this effect only occurs if the message is powerful enough by itself to affect change, and would have effective from a credible source in any case.” Havland et al. 1949

Although this is not something we can necessarily change, if one relies on a multitude of sources when forming an opinion on an issue, or simply trying to determine the validity of a claim, the problem of redistributing inaccurate information could be culled. Of course, this would force readers to go beyond the “one-liners” and spend more time researching various sources and media servers to fully grasp an issue. But why has it become better to be misinformed about a variety of topics, than to be well-informed on a single issue?

Unlike professional academics who are specialized, it is not sensible for every newsreader to have such detailed knowledge on a few subjects. The thirst for knowledge is similar to a basic economic principle in which wants are unlimited and resources are scarce – people want to know everything, but only have time to know a little. While the fast paced lifestyle of our era is unchangeable, the attitude towards shallow information is. If we know little, and we realize we know little and we don’t suppose ourselves experts after having read so little, it would change our attitudes towards complex issues. Mainly, we would realize that issues are complex, forcing us to be critical of our own knowledge, and hopefully we would be deterred from spreading information that is half-true or perhaps not true at all.

Photo by Joey Shea

Why is this important for political science and politics in general?  The success or failure of political figures, and political movements, is a direct result of the support or disapproval of the people. No longer simply a private or perhaps a household matter, opinions are now made public and as the saying goes, news travels (whether it be true or not). For instance, in May of 2011, Fox News accidentally declared President Obama had been killed, as opposed to Osama bin Laden. This mistake was not limited to Fox News, as news networks such as CNN and MSNBC were also guilty. Such a mistake quickly snowballed through the use of furious re-tweeting and blogging and had people unsure of whether Obama, or Osama had been killed. This confusion could have been quelled if people had remained calm and looked a little further, or listened long enough for people to correct themselves, but the impulse to absorb and disseminate information quickly and efficiently discouraged a further look.

Access to a rich variety of information is a gift that technology has dropped in our laps. It is not one that should be abused, or taken lightly. Instead, it should be used effectively to broaden our knowledge. This constant sharing of information has allowed easy access to complex socio-cultural issues and situations that shape the political landscape of the world we live in today, and the one we will find ourselves in tomorrow.

-Meagan Potier

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