Guest column: Think before you share

The news that ‘fake news’ is all over the internet shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s paying attention, writes Roger Plothow.

In some circles, it comes as an unpleasant surprise that the internet is littered with inaccurate information – what some are calling “fake news.”

That’s a contradiction in terms, of course. If it’s fake, it can’t be news. That it comes as a surprise to anyone who’s paying attention even a little that most of what is found on the internet is bogus, well, that’s the real shocker.

Eight years ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt called the internet a “cesspool” and worried that his company had been partly to blame for unleashing something for which few people were prepared. Facebook and Twitter have only compounded the problem.

Here are some assertions that I can’t prove but I am all but certain are true:

o The vast majority of memes quoting famous people that you and your friends share back and forth are misattributed or entirely false. This seems relatively harmless, but it is indicative of a broader and deeper issue – not only can you not trust everything you read on Facebook and elsewhere, you probably can’t trust most of it.

o The vast majority of “news” you and your friends share back and forth is either inaccurate or slanted beyond all similarity to the truth.

o Our perception of the world and what happens in it is actually getting less accurate because of the internet and how we use it.

My son, Jeremy, teaches seventh grade history at Taylorview Middle School. Beginning with his student teaching days, I have spent a day each year with his classes teaching a 45-minute lesson on how to discern fact from fiction on the internet. I’ve made presentations on the topic to the Idaho Falls City Club, the Utah League of Women Voters, Idaho Falls TEDx and anyone who will listen. I’ve lost friends on Facebook because I fact-check everything they post. I am insufferable because I’ve convinced myself that someone has to do it.

For years I’ve written on this page about the importance of real journalism and how it differs from nearly everything on the internet or, for that matter, what passes for national TV news. The plague knows no politics – it’s equally bad among liberals, moderates and conservatives. This is no false equivalence; I believe it to be true judging from my own experience.

The Post Register’s Commentary Page editor Katie Stokes and I have taken up the task of attempting to do some basic fact-checking of our letters to the editor and guest columns, and many writers find that irritating. I don’t blame them. But an insistence on even a minimal expectation of accuracy has to start somewhere, and if it’s not at the newspaper, where is it?

Ronald Reagan made famous for Americans a Russian proverb, “trust, but verify,” when he quoted the phrase during the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Dec. 8, 1987. (How do I know he said it? It’s part of the Reagan Presidential Library’s archives, which you can access – on the internet.)

In the world of the internet, it may be time to update the phrase to, “disbelieve until you verify.”


Roger Plothow is the Post Register’s editor and publisher. You can write to him at 333 Northgate Mile, Idaho Falls, ID, 83403 or email him at rplothow@postregister.com.


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