Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

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