"Dr. Internet is always dangerous": How the Internet has altered health, journalism, education

The Internet cuts both ways for Charles Seife. It's a tool of liberation, but also distraction and misinformation

Published August 9, 2014 10:30PM (EDT)

Charles Seife     (Sigrid Estrada)
Charles Seife (Sigrid Estrada)

There’s a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel setup to Charles Seife’s latest book, "Virtual Unreality." Take a science journalist and set him loose on the bad-information spawning ground that is the Internet. As Seife (whose name rhymes with “life”) reveals, though, the power of your argument is all in the way you shoot. "Virtual Unreality" is both hilarious and chilling — a truly entertaining yet sobering reminder of how skeptical we all need to be of what we read, view and watch online.

From his home office, the author and New York University journalism professor spoke about how Internet groupthink is creating a new kind of reality.

Digital information makes it possible for everyone to have a voice, rather than just a government or some huge media conglomerate. It seems like a great tool for democracy. When information is free, isn’t it more truthful? And why isn’t that something to celebrate?

Well, I think it is a great tool for democracy. We’ve seen how people who are ordinarily suppressed, now that they have an outlet for speaking, for broadcasting their message to the world, it’s much much harder to suppress people. However, it’s a double-edged sword because when information is out there for everyone to manipulate, for everyone to alter, for everyone to broadcast, unfortunately, you get a huge amount of nonsense as more and more people put their stuff out there. You get noise to the signal. That is, if you look at Wikipedia for example, anyone could change the pages on Wikipedia, which means, okay, if you’re an expert on black holes, that’s great — you can alter the black hole page. But that also means some guy’s cousin Mike who’s busy drinking beers and knows nothing about black holes can change your entry and have it accepted to Wikipedia. And unfortunately, there are many more people who don’t know anything about black holes than people who do. The democratizing factor also means that there’s more garbage out there.

The example that you gave of changing an entry about black holes. I think for some people that might seem like “Well, yeah, that’s gonna happen but it doesn’t seem like it’s terribly dangerous.” But you do have some examples in the book that show that misinformation can be very, very dangerous, and in fact bad medical information can kill people in the hundreds of thousands.

Yes. Dr. Internet is always very dangerous. You can get great information out there, but at the same time, fringe ideas — things that are believed by only a couple dozen or a couple hundred people -- are there on the Internet and they can sometimes be just as prominent as the stuff that is mainstream. One really horrible example happened in South Africa a little over a decade ago when [then-president of South Africa] Thabo Mbeki did a search on the Internet. He later admitted he got his information off the Internet from a fringe group that believes that AIDS was not caused by the virus HIV; they instead believed it was caused by drugs and lifestyle. And Thabo Mbeki came across this page and he became a believer that, in fact, these drugs which blocked the virus were doing more harm than good. As a consequence, he decided to block the use of these drugs in his own country. In fact, there was an in-court fight to try and get him to distribute drugs that were out there. For about half a decade, those drugs were not available and they would’ve saved lives. One peer-reviewed paper actually estimated it was about 300,000 people who died as a result of Mbeki’s reluctance to distribute these drugs.

Another thing you talked about is how, when people with beliefs that are proven to be wrong, if they have a strong social network, they kind of dig in and believe them even more fervently and gain followers.

Yes, yes. In fact one of the things about information is that the information that’s useful is that which wears down or erodes or changes your preconception. We humans like to hold on to our preconceptions, so information that comes in and challenges them can be very difficult, especially when there are challenges to some very deeply held beliefs. There is a study done in the ’50s, I believe, by Leon Festinger, who observed what happened when a doomsday cult got information that completely contradicted the predictions of the doomsday. What he discovered is that this cognitive dissonance that happens — there are basically two ways to solve the cognitive dissonance. One is get rid of your belief, which can be very painful, or reinforce it. And the best way to reinforce it is by gathering other people who are similarly deluded. So we see this happening all the time. Instead of having these beliefs worn away by concrete evidence, what happens is these counterfactual things often gain in strength and gain followers. A good example is the September 11 truthers or the people who believe Obama is not a natural-born citizen. All of a sudden, you have these contrary facts that are presented out there and yet the belief becomes stronger and you get more and more people following.

You work with young people. I’m wondering: Do you think young people are more or less susceptible to buying into that kind of information?

I think it cuts across demographics, but I think young people have a different relationship with information than people who grew up before the Internet. For them, the digital information is almost like another sense. It’s like sight or sound — they’re plugged in and they’re gathering information about the world around them through the Internet much more than the people who are a little older. I think, as a result, they are a little — they’re more susceptible to people who manipulate the Internet, that hoaxes and fads probably strike them a little harder, although at the same time they grow up with a greater sense of cynicism.

One thing I definitely do see with younger people is that they are less willing to forsake the Internet, look at other sources, speak to librarians, speak to experts in the subject, go to archival works that can’t be found on the Internet. It’s kind of almost like the drunk at a lamppost: “Why are you looking here for your keys? The light is so much better!” The Internet is a great illuminator of information but it doesn’t illuminate the entire world and so you have to sometimes stray from its light, and I think young people are more reluctant to do so.

I want to talk about journalism a little bit. In journalism there’s so much pressure these days, and a lot of job descriptions say you will be on call 24/7 and many Web journalists especially are posting six, seven, eight stories a day. How do you think that’s contributing to the problem of information online.

I think that, it’s easy from me to say this from my ivory tower — I used to be a deadline journalist like other journalists. I don’t know what I would do in the situation nowadays. But what’s happening is you have seven, eight, nine deadlines per day. This used to happen with the wire services too, but now it’s happening everywhere; you can’t keep up. You can’t do the basic, minimum fact-checking that you need to do to do a responsible job with a journalistic assignment. You can’t go and get on the phone and call two or three experts. You can’t go to the scene and observe for yourself. If you are trying to do eight or nine assignments, just getting out of your office and visiting the scene where something happened will take up half the day, which means one filed story in half a day is just too little nowadays. So what happens is people rely upon sources on the Internet, often press releases, often other information filed by other reporters, and you get a huge echo chamber. And as we all know, with echo chambers you get distortions every time you get an echo.

You talk about in the field of journalism, going out and talking to people, and the fact that so many news organizations have pulled funding away from that — and it’s expensive. Is there any hope for nonprofits, these foundations that are being set up? There has to be a source for good information somewhere? Do you see any hope in the future?

I think the ecosystem is upset now. I think there is an out-of-balance ecosystem where the primary news gatherers are disappearing and the secondary predators — the pundits and the opinion writers — are proliferating, and the people who repeat. Nonprofits do great work -- I mean, I love ProPublica, for example -- they’re doing great investigative work. There are other nonprofits out there. I don’t think nonprofits are the entire answer, especially since what they tend to do is long-form and investigative, which is really important. I think long-form and investigative is what’s suffering, and these are the sorts of stories which make people really question what their government is doing, how the world works. At the same time, I think a lot of what’s suffering is the daily stuff, reporting on what has been passed in city hall today. Who’s doing what in a certain town — the very basic reporting that needs to be done is... I can’t see nonprofits stepping into the gap there very easily. Hyper-local was all the rage a couple of years ago; the idea was actually to delve deeper into local issues and get the day-to-day reporting out, but of course that was not a sustainable model, in part because of the dynamics I talked about in the book.

Another issue in nonprofits that I haven’t seen people talk about is that there are restrictions on what happens, what you can say, when you’re a 501(c)(3). That, in fact, you cannot take a political position. And to do work which is somewhat political, which newspapers often do, would not be doable by a nonprofit — at least according to the law. I haven’t seen people grappling with that yet.

I wanted to talk a little bit about Wikipedia because you have a great section on Wikipedia and you say there was a 2005 study that revealed Wikipedia was nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica -- but then you go on to say the kind of information that is misreported in Wikipedia is very different than the kind of information that comes out of Encyclopedia Britannica. Can you talk about that a little bit? What’s the difference? Bad information is bad information, isn’t it?

Well, there’s all kinds of flavors of bad information. What happens with Encyclopedia Britannica is that you’ve got a subject matter expert, and experts make mistakes. They get a fact wrong, they get a date wrong, there’s an ambiguity in language that makes you believe something that’s not real, there are long-term conceptions of the field that turn out to be wrong -- all those wind up in Encyclopedia Britannica. That happens on Wikipedia, too, but really what Wikipedia is subject to is a bunch of different errors that you don’t see in a professional publication. For one thing, [in a professional publication] you don’t see vandalism. You don’t see people deliberately trying to confuse you or to add a hoax or to burnish the image of somebody or to just get laughs by making fun of somebody, and that all happens in Wikipedia — you’ve got random people trying to edit their own biographies, and make it look like a third person, or you get people from Congress trying to make their congresspeople look better, or make their opponents look worse. You get companies that are trying to tilt the facts in their favor by suppressing dissent or by highlighting the things they’ve done more than they should be. You also get plain old vandalism where someone, for a laugh, “I was the mayor of Shanghai in 1995.” That stays up there and it can propagate -- and falsehoods propagate on Wikipedia.

You also talk about the circular nature of some of this and how that [false] information is somehow changing reality.

One example I like to talk about is the outfielder named Mike Trout. He picked up the nickname "The Melville Meteor" because a prankster named Weedmouse altered his Wikipedia page to give him the nickname “The Melville Meteor.” Weedmouse intended it as an ironic slap at Mike Trout, who he thought was not like Mickey Mantle; and Mickey Mantle’s nickname was “The Commerce Comet,” so it was supposed to be kind of an ironic reference to “The Commerce Comet.” But it turns out a few weeks after it wound up on Wikipedia, that it wound up in a baseball encyclopedia and it wound up in a newspaper, because these places now rely on Wikipedia for facts, and now, once these external references were out there, Wikipedia pages started citing those external references as proof that, in fact, this guy’s nickname is “The Melville Meteor.” So you’ve got Wikipedia writing something, papers repeating it, Wikipedia using the papers to prove it, and it becomes firmer and firmer each cycle. This happens a lot. For example, the coati, the animal, is in Wikipedia — or has been recently — named the Brazilian Aardvark. It has nothing to do with an aardvark; it doesn’t look at all like an aardvark; it’s not related any more than any mammal is related. But this actually got repeated in a number of external sites and so now that’s a nickname for the coati. Someone making fun of his — I think he was a friend from Pakistan — changed the name of the dish korma to the guy’s name, Azid. So if you look on recipe sites, often you’ll find a synonym for korma is “azid.” So these things propagate. And once they get out there in the wild, they get reinforced. They become true in some sense. If you look at the korma discussion pages, there’s a kind of philosophical argument: Should we delete it? Well it’s really a nickname out there. It’s a very strange discussion you’d never have with Encyclopedia Britannica.

I’ve looked into this before and gotten back some responses that basically said “Oh, librarians have been talking about this stuff forever, blah, blah, blah. Isn’t it self-serving that they’re trying to show how important their jobs are?” And I can imagine people might point to journalists and say the same things: they’re just trying to stay relevant. What would you say to that?

I think there’s truth in that one of the prescriptions I give in my book is that you need a curatorial class — journalists and librarians, who are the ones who are hit the most — and these are the people who can help you sort through fact and fiction. However, the book isn’t saving or trying to save librarians or journalists. It’s noting that these are professions that are in decline in various ways even though, if you think about it, library attendance by many metrics is up, the curatorial aspects of libraries are being hit. Similarly, the media empires are making lots of money.

It’s the journalistic elements, the elements that take time and effort and sorting through information and synthesizing stuff out of the good and discarding the bad, that’s what’s getting hit. So I think yes, this is coming from a journalist who in some ways is lamenting the decline of his field, but I’m not — it’s an observational thing that the field is declining and here’s what you can expect as a consequence. I don’t think the book is a call to say “We have to turn back the clock.” This is the way things are. Digital information is here to stay, and there’s no question it has made life better. Would I go back to the era of card catalogs? No way. Even though it was hog heaven for journalists and librarians back then. The world has changed, but I think what we have to do as a society is realize that we are beginning to suffer from our loss of curatorial personnel and we have to adjust accordingly. We have to pick up some of these skills. In some ways, what I’m calling for is not the hiring of more librarians, but perhaps more training as a librarian for everyone.

I was listening to a news story yesterday and I wanted to throw this out to you. You talk about how easy it is to fake things and that people are so often duped by fake photos, but I was listening to a report about the downed Malaysian airlines plane and NPR was talking about a photo that was online that showed a Russian missile launcher — a photo from a location in that area — and residents of the area are completely skeptical and saying that photo was doctored and that it was fake. I’m just wondering, is it possible people are becoming more suspicious so that nothing seems believable?

I think that is happening. For self-defense. If you see something, a photograph which shows something extraordinary, a lot of people say “Is that real? Is that fake?” That should be the reflex because nowadays photographs can easily be faked, and faked convincingly. The downside of that, of course, is that photographs that challenge you are immediately thought of as faked. So the added skepticism is good in defending us against falsehoods but it also increases our resistance to things which are unpleasant or change our minds.

Are you writing this for your journalism students? You actually have some sort of “how-to” information in here, it seems it’s instructive in some way. So I’m wondering who you had in mind when writing it?

For some of it, some of it actually comes out of my classes that I teach. I teach a class in investigative journalism. A lot of what I teach is not just how to gather information and how to extract it but also extracting information from people who don’t want you to get it, which is in some ways the exact opposite of the Internet. But also how to assess the quality of information that you get. How to verify truth. How to gain confidence in something that might or might not be real. So in some ways that’s the core of investigative journalism. And so the how-to stuff — these are things I definitely teach my students. For example, one of the things that always freaks out my students -- my classes now are mostly women -- is when I ask them, for anyone who has a Facebook page, to do an image search on their own images and see where else they’re used. For those that have a public Facebook page, once in a while you’ll see one of my students turn white that they’re being used as a dating scam or the photos are being used without their permission and without their knowledge for nefarious purposes. So it’s always a very effective lesson when one of them actually says “Oh my god!”

Looking to the future a little bit, do you think we’re going to keep cruising along with the way things are happening, where we have less and less control over our private information or do you think we’re going to be entering some kind of a different realm? I’m wondering if this is a transition stage and if we’re going to have more control and if people are going to become more and more aware of how their information is being used.

I definitely think we’re in a transition phase. But I hate to say it, I think we may be entering a post-privacy society. I teach journalists, and one of the things that keeps journalists in check is a sense of privacy, a sense of boundaries, and the understanding that you are imposing upon the people you interview and there are certain things that may not be worth exposing even though they’re juicy. In trying to talk about journalistic ethics, the students today are actually studying with the understanding in a way students even seven or eight years ago weren’t. And I wonder, these are people who are used to sharing everything online and so it’s really much harder to understand the value of why others would not want that, would not behave in the same way.

Is that something that will just go away as older generations go away? The worries about over-sharing, sharing private information…

I see through my students’ eyes a world without privacy that is completely normal. It’s something that’s completely foreign to me but I understand others can live with it. The future is not going to be up to us; it’s going to be up to them.

Right. You wrote this book because you think we should be aware of what’s out there and what we’re sharing.

Oh, absolutely. And people — it’s funny that there’s this mixed feeling where people say it but then they’re shocked when the information is actually used against them. A good example of this is the Facebook experiment that broke a couple of weeks ago. The idea that Facebook is actively using your information against you and using your information to manipulate your friends, try to make your friends happier or more sad, struck people as horrifying. But this is what these companies do and were doing from the very beginning. They’re using your information to manipulate you and the people you communicate with. It’s kind of like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." You think you have this persona online but that persona is only partially controlled by you; it’s partially controlled by others who are trying to do things you wouldn’t approve of. So my book is trying to make people aware of them. Even though on some level they’re probably aware of it already, the consequences of what they’ve surrendered haven’t struck yet, at least in a big way.

I think it’s very easy to get duped, even if you are skeptical about information that’s out there, I think that when you’re in the moment and somebody is asking for information and you’re doing something fun, you can temporarily kind of lose your mind and forget everything you know -- and that’s why it seems to me it’s really important to be constantly reminded of the dangers that are out there because it’s so easy to get sucked in.

Yes, it is, and society is also demanding it more and more as our interactions go online. Our human interactions with our society are increasingly mediated by these companies. If you have a child, you are dealing with “When do I allow them to go online? What do I allow them to do? How do I monitor it? How do I keep them safe? And yet how do I allow them to speak to their friends if this is the mode of communication?”

By Sara Scribner

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