From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 30, 2002*: Believe me when I tell you ...

Though it's quite common to hear people say something like "I know it's true because I read it in the newspaper", we rarely hear the same thing said about something we've read on the web. Almost the opposite is often the case: we usually tend to feel a bit uncomfortable admitting the web is the source of our information. Many wonderful things can be said about the internet - it connects us to (at least some) information on almost every topic imaginable, it has an immediacy rarely available in other media, it continually integrates new technologies into its basic framework. But among all the wonderful things that so attracts us to the internet, it's admittedly rather far from being a fountain of truth.

Then again, we're not always using the internet in order to find the truth. Often we're more than happy to attach ourselves to the latest urban legend making the rounds and pass in on to our friends and acquaintances, regardless of how questionable its veracity. Urban legends, of course, have been with us for generations, though there's little question that the internet has offered them a fitting medium in which to thrive. I honestly love reading pretty much all of these, though I've made it clear that I don't pass them on. While working on this column, one old friend of this sort showed up again (twice) in my inbox. I admit that I was a bit surprised to receive it, thinking that if the baby hadn't died yet, then at least the legend had. But no, it was still making the rounds.

Because of its ability to disseminate information so quickly, the internet might seem to be a fitting medium for pleas about missing children. But though some of these may well be truthful rather than legend, distinguishing between the two isn't particularly easy, and in Israel I'll receive pleas for children who were lost in Canada - something about which I can, understandably, do very little. And because letters of this sort are rarely dated, in rather classic Pooh (or should we make that Eeyore) fashion we can receive even an authentic plea long after the missing person has been found.

But what's the point of all this? Have I gotten this far into this column (including a related, but undeniably diverging, date tie-in) without touching on the main topic (whatever it is) simply through an unstoppable series of digressions, or is there actually some method to this madness? The point has something to do with crying "wolf". Or with the fact that even clear-cut facts become questionable, perhaps even dubious, when they're distributed via a medium most frequently used to disseminate myths. When our source is usually associated with urban legends and hoaxes, do we dare believe that same source when it tells us something that we hope is true.

For Israelis this became a burning issue when during much of this past summer the internet became one of the fronts on which the Al Aksa intifada was fought. We picked up stories about Jenin, and what did or didn't happen there, not only from CNN, but from countless online magazines and journals, some outrightly biased, others presumably objective. And many private citizens got into the act, some publishing their own views on web sites, others simply acting as conduits and passing on whatever came their way to their entire address book. More often than not the messages being sent were reports of anti-Israel propaganda throughout the world, apparently passed on simply so that others would know what's being written about us. Of course, as the well known saying goes, "the first casualty of war is truth", and it's a bit illogical to assume that any side in a conflict such as this is going to have a monopoly on that commodity. But in this particular conflict the rumors and claims sometimes became so outrageous that even without the internet it became difficult to know whether we were dealing with facts or with legends and hoaxes. Seemingly "factual reports" in respected journals of atrocities in Jenin often dissipated into "unsubstantiated claims" within only a few days. But with so many messages making the rounds, having credentials as a trustworthy source was of utmost importance. And sadly, many of those sources didn't seem to have those credentials.

The central question becomes: is the same medium that we use for exchanging jokes a trusthworthy medium for transmitting truth? Perhaps the question isn't even legitimate. After all, we use words for everything, from telling people we love them, to philosophizing, to buying groceries, and few people question whether words are illegitimate for love because we use them for groceries as well. In the long run, the internet - the web, e-mail, forums, whatever - is a conduit. Anything can (and usually does) pass through it. It's very doubtful that we'll ever really solve the problem of believability, of information we hope is truthful being tainted by a proximity to outright falsehoods. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that people will learn to check their sources - hopefully before they click on Send.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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