20140104 The dangers of “internet-spread”

First, comes the danger that something is published containing errors (however we define “error” – it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article). Depending on exactly how I promote this article, I can ensure that e.g. Google indexes it within about 20 seconds of publication. True, it will not appear in the Index in that time but it will appear in Google’s next round of “alerts” for any term in it that someone has set up using Google’s alert service. So, if there is a popular trigger word or phrase, millions of people may receive an alert according to whatever schedule they have set.

How do these dangers arise? In part because, in the rush to get news out, there has been a significant reduction in the checks and balances that used to apply in an old world newspaper office. Sub-editors, who were charged with checking grammar and writing headlines had an equally important function of questioning whether the article properly represented facts and whether the editorial around those facts fairly represented them.

That latter function has all but disappeared in the age of web-publishing. Many “new media” companies do not have sub-editors. Journalists rely on on-line grammar and spell-checks (and all too often ignore them, it seems). There is no “review” stage when an article sits for several hours before publication so that the journalist has time to ponder what he has written and to decide whether he got it right. All too often, the imperative is to write something that is at least controversial and, ideally, a little inflammatory. Why? Because, in addition to the “scrapers” who just copy material, there is a secondary media which reads articles, then comments on them. The more controversial, the more likely that a niche website will pick it up. And there are millions of niche websites. They are not thieves. They legitimately use small extracts, comment on them and link back to the original, providing a symbiotic relationship between the fed and the feeder.

That, of itself, is potentially a very good thing. But it creates the second risk. Many of the readers of the niche site are, almost by definition, partisan. And it is the job of the editors of that site to stoke partisan activity: they call it debate, others would consider it incitement to flame or, in the more recent parlance, troll The truth is that the vast majority of those who comment on websites are opinionated but ignorant; many are barely literate, they are not capable of understanding nuances in the source material and therefore their own bigotry comes out. They are on the prowl for places to say bad things about people they don’t know but, as a result of seeing a shred of information, true or not, see an opportunity to say something unpleasant. Yet, we have left out, so far, those that are merely mistaken or misled and who make a comment that they genuinely consider correct but which, had they not had a partial or misleading impression would have either said something different or said nothing at all.

In this way, very carefully phrased explanations, which say exactly what an interviewee wants to say, can be distorted by a series of failures. The original journalist may make incomplete or inaccurate notes, he may present an editorial interpretation of those notes which are not what the interviewee intended to present, the lack of pre-publication checks by someone whose skills are in both carefully assessing the language used and facts means that an article can be both wrong and, even if the facts are right, present a misleading impression and comments take on a life of their own, with few bothering to check the source before adding their two pen’orth.