Has the web reduced the accuracy of our information?

23rd July 2012

In the latest Nieman Report – Truth in the Age of Social Media – Craig Silverman suggest that – ‘Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of verification.’

But although this may be true, do we think that the web has helped to improve accuracy of information we access overall, or not?

Let’s take the example of Encyclopaedia Britannica vs Wikipedia. The former was written by selected, individual experts who created and provided information that was taken as gospel truth for many generations. Of course this esteemed publication was killed off by free access to information on the web.

In contrast Wikipedia is created by an army of volunteers and the quality and clarity of the information provided varies across topics – some of the fiercest battle grounds around ‘accuracy’ are over subjects as diverse as – Caesar Salad, The Death Star from Star Wars, the name of the US band ‘The Eagles’, and Jimmy Wales’ birthday. Wikipedia is great because it is free, readily accessible and covers a vast multitude of subjects – more than could ever be addressed in an off line version. On the downside it is not clear how ‘expert’ , some of the writers are and there is always the problem of ‘wikitrolls’ – those seeking to deliberately input incorrect information.

The internet has created a demand for smaller and faster chunks of information. Channels like Twitter are built on small blocks of information (with links) and content providers, race to be the first to publish breaking news. This information is then shared exponentially around the web by people who make little effort to check the veracity of the facts. In tandem with this, traditional content providers,who historically published larger and more in depth tracts of information and analysis, have been in decline – witness the recent closure of the music music magazine – The Word.

The demand is for ‘fast facts’ – without the need for substantiation or comment. The problem here is that facts can be interpreted in many ways – and require analysis, some level of subjectivity, to make sense of the information. The decline of quality newspapers and other analysis led publications, has meant that this level of rigorous analysis and ‘fact checking’ is lacking in the digital world.
This problem is especially true in the financial sector , where incorrect information can have a very real impact. One example was the collapse of the Qantas share price in early 2011, following a false tweet from Indonesia which reported that one of it’s A380 airlines had crashed.

Not only is there a concern with the quality of information, there is also perhaps inevitably, a lack of trust in information provided by some digital channels. As recently reported on The Wall blog:

Research being reported by ReadWriteWeb suggests people are more likely to question the credibility of news if they read it on Twitter compared to seeing it on a news website or a blog — even when the news originates from the same source.

For the research, published last month in Communication Quarterly by Mike Schmierbach and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, the same New York Times stories were posted on the web and on Twitter and the reaction was then gauged.

The story posted on the website was seen by respondents as more credible than when the same story was posted on the New York Times’ Twitter feed. It also found that stories posted on Twitter were seen as less important than stories in a newspaper or linked by a blog.

News providers have extensive systems to prove the accuracy of information. The BBC has it’s own verification department, the UGC Hub, which seeks to assess the quality of information being provided from other sources. But this isn’t always effective, as was demonstrated when the BBC mistakenly used a photo of dead bodies from the Iraqi earthquake in 2003, to illustrate the recent massacre from the Syrian crisis in the town of Houla. 

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. There is clearly a gap left by the decline of independent and objective information organs such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Quality Press ; and our rising reliance on digital data. The web provides fantastically fast access to fresh information, but the responsible members of the digital community, be they individuals or organisations, must play an important role in assessing the veracity and validity of digital information

Nick Hammond  www.thedigitalfilter.com  @digital_filter

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