Truth on tap

Some people have put together an alternative to Wikipedia called Conservapedia. But, I won’t grace it with a link. I’d rather not let the Internet become more dangerous as a form of mind control.

The site is meant to provide explanations of world-wide phenomena in conservative terms. This brings full circle the blurring notion of truth in the Internet Era, as was described quite well by Clay Shirky in his essay, “Truth without scarcity, ethics without force.”

For example, the many-thousand word article on “Public Schools” includes a section entitled “Gender Disparity”. It explains that “Public schools as of late have seen girls’ scores soar above boys’ because schools have been geared toward the needs of girls”. It goes on:

Schools seek to emasculate boys by preventing healthy roughhousing and having psychologists put boys on drugs such as Ritalin. Then boys often come to hate school because radical feminists seek to prevent men from being men and forcing males to go through counseling to “discuss their feelings” and other liberal hogwash treating all students as if they were female. Colleges, because of this trend, see a trend of 60/40 female to male ratio because of feminist drivel such as romance novels in literature and ineffective therapy and attempts to push feminine traits on boys and young men making them frustrated and fed up with the system unless they agree to the school’s desire to become effeminate.

Now, certainly, there are valid conservative arguments against public schools. You don’t have to look far to find them. You might feel that a public school is a poor use of taxpayer dollars, is a violation of parental child-rearing rights, or is a form of mass indoctrination.

But, a feminist conspiracy?

The idea that public schools seek to “emasculate” boys and that there are “radical feminists” behind it all? That the school’s aim is to “effeminate” boys? This is just ridiculous. More importantly, it has no basis in reality. This paragraph cites no sources and claims no research backing up its beliefs. Likely, it is one man’s twisted view, seeking a wide audience as an authoritative explanation.

However, a discussion of public schools and liberal vs conservative views of them is not what interests me now. It’s more the idea that one can, today, write an “encyclopedia article” that purports to “explain public schools”, but that really propagandizes a certain view of public schools. In this case, a view with about as much support as one that states public schools are a way to discover wizards and witches in the general population before they grow old enough to practice sorcery.

Shirky said that the “philosophy of news ethics” was to “tell the truth to the degree you can, and fess up when you get it wrong.” This philosophy doesn’t change in the digital age, but what does change is the impact of truth-telling. Namely: “individual and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on scarcity, and hewing to ethical norms without the ability to use force.”

He goes on:

This will make for a far more divisive public sphere, a process that is already under way. It’s tempting to divide these changes into Win-Loss columns to see whether this is a change for the better or the worse — Birthers bad, New Atheists good (re-label to taste) — but this sort of bookkeeping is a dead end. The effects of digital abundance are not trivially separable — the Birthers and the New Atheists used similar tools and techniques to enter the public sphere, as did the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. More importantly, the effects are not reversible.

In other words, if you don’t like Wikipedia’s take on public schools, you will invent your own Wikipedia. No one is stopping you. And we can’t ban Wikipedia clones — we have to live in a world where it’s possible every faction will run its own.

But where does that leave Wikipedia, which does seek to have a neutral position on the world’s phenomena through a collaborative editorial process and a non-profit organizational structure?

I believe actively combating misinformation is beyond the mission of Wikipedia. Better to simply omit the crazed arguments. But it is firmly within the power of Internet journalists to fight misinformation actively. We need journalists to duke it out in the public sphere, and let the audience watch this process unfold. To expose propaganda for what it is, and to fight an information war, armed with facts and research.

We need Wikipedia to clean up the results, but only once the dust settles.

Is this naive? Maybe. I believe that in the Internet Era, we don’t have a weakened notion of truth, but we just have a messier view of how the sausage is actually made. We have public debate leading to consensus on some issues, and more contention on others. When the debate doesn’t end in a way that is satisfactory for a big enough group of passionate people, they may just manufacture their own version of the truth. Like a vast, radical feminist educational conspiracy taking over our public school system. However, it’s then on other truth-tellers — hopefully ones with authority and audience — to point out how wrong they are.

This is why I believe journalism is more important in this era of Internet media than it has been in any other. The only way to fight feelings is with arguments supported by facts. Everyday citizens don’t have the time to gather these facts, do the research, and craft the arguments. It needs to be a dedicated, professional role. And it’s a role with high demand — citizens don’t want to be misled by propaganda. In the same way they don’t want to mis-diagnose their own diseases or lose their own court cases.

The Internet Era did eliminate truth by fiat. HBO’s The Newsroom has an idyllic portrayal of this that is as much an old-world fantasy as Sorkin’s earlier portrayal of White House inner machinations in The West Wing. Wise, Benevolent Presidents don’t rain down Justice on the plebes and Wise, Benevolent Newsmen don’t rain down Truth on them, either. Instead, truth is on tap all over the Internet, and it doesn’t even have to be true. It just has to taste good, because after all, it’s free.

As Shirky put it:

Now, and from now on, journalists are going to be participants in a far more argumentative sphere than anything anyone alive has ever seen. The question for us is not whether we want this increase in argumentation — no one is asking us, and there is, in fact, no one who could ask us — but rather how we adapt ourselves to it as it unfolds.

Will we let the cacophony of willful agendas drown out the reasoned whispers of the wise?

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