The Internet Creates a Misinformed Electorate

Inaccuracies, lies, and innuendoes racing throughout the cyberworld give voters a false sense of knowledge about political candidates. Pro or con?

Pro: Too Much Info, Too Few Facts

While there is credible information on the Internet that helps voters learn more about candidates and issues, there is a shady side as well.

Opinion masquerading as information is frequently accepted as fact by individuals who have neither the training nor the inclination to skeptically evaluate the reporting they encounter. The “Birther” controversy counts as just one example of how misinformation can be spread virally and never completely put to rest, no matter how thorough a debunking it receives. Consider that:

- Candidates can embellish, exaggerate, and even lie online, and unless someone credible checks each fact for accuracy, that misinformation remains.

- Subtlety, innuendo, and “information” from PACs and corporate lobbyists cleverly mislead readers of sites and ads.

- Statements can be, and have been, taken out of context and spread as the whole truth.

- Once intentionally false information appears online, it’s almost impossible to correct.

- Because most established media organizations have eliminated their fact checkers and research librarians, errors or partly reported facts slip past overworked editors and become part of the “truth.” This is a growing problem because a large percentage of the electorate gets its news from the Internet.

- Many voters tend to accept as fact any nicely wrapped presentation supporting what they already believe or feel inclined to believe.

Until voters become fully aware of the extent of the problem and begin taking advantage of such tools as Politifact, the purveyors of misinformation will continue to influence unduly the outcome of legislation and elections.

Con: More Info Sources, More Enlightenment

The Internet is blamed for all of society’s ills, so why not a misinformed electorate?

Thirty-six percent of the American population consults Wikipedia, a new and assumedly unreliable source given that it is (horror of horrors) user-generated and user-edited, clearly adding to the problem of misinformation. Except, folks at the respected journal Nature wondered about Wikipedia’s reliability back in 2005 and concluded that its accuracy approximates that of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Well, even if it isn’t unreliable, the Internet has accelerated the decline of print newspaper subscriptions to record lows, creating a misinformation noose around the neck of the electorate, right? Except 113 million Americans read their newspapers online.

Well, at least there are the partisanship and outright lies that go unchecked by any editor and allowed to ricochet around the Web unchallenged. Except, the Internet also serves as a great tool for political candidates’ debunking teams to disseminate corrections. Further, organizations such as Politifact and factcheck.org use the Internet to provide assessment of political statements by candidates of all stripes.

At the end of the day, the Internet delivers more viewpoints and freedom of information. The idea that discussion and debate—rather than the automatic acceptance of information blessed from on high—is the best way to arrive at the truth has been controversial since Plato, and often all this information has left people without a referee. But when has that ever not been the case? From the Spanish-American War to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, people have gotten bad information prior to the Internet. But thanks to the Internet, the electorate now has the tools to look into things from a much broader set of perspectives.

And guess what? We’re using them.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Westernfan

Anyone that believes everything they read is a fool whether it comes to them in hard copy or via the internet. I would like to think that separating facts from fiction, opinions, misrepresentations, and outright lies is one of the primary missions of media sources just like Businessweek.

Marton

The internet is a great tool, but even the latest CNC machine in the hands of the uneducated is worth nothing. Our societal problems lie not with the amount of fact we have (and under fact I would put everything from rumor to factoid to hard evidence), but our way of thinking about the information. I was raised, for instance, to be critical, to question and to doubt what I am hearing. As a journalist, I have put that to good use, always questioning in my mind even things I might have ageed with "from the gut." This has earned me the response "Why are you so negative?" thousands of times. But I stick to it, because it is one guarantee for better predictions. Hence the debate here is essentially irrelevant.

Westernfan

Anyone that beleives everything they read, via hard copy or on their computer screen, is a fool. I depend on Businessweek and other respected media outlets to help me sort out fact from fiction, opinion, and misrepresentation.

Kokoro Dudu

@Westernfan, I don't believe what you wrote.

Alan

This problem doesn't only affect voting, but also everything with an underlying opinion, belief system, and/or ideological agenda. One can believe or want to believe in any silly hypothesis and will almost certainly find someone on the Internet sharing it (known as confirmation bias: "see, see, I'm not the only one!").

Frank Gallagher

Confucius 551 BC – 479 BC
“There were no dates in this history, but scrawled this way and that across every page were the words benevolence, righteousness and morality. Finally I began to make out what was written between the line; the whole volume filled a single page: Eat people.

In his essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946), Orwell wrote about the importance of honest and clear language and said that vague writing can be used as a powerful tool of political manipulation. In Nineteen Eighty-Four he described how the state controlled thought by controlling language, making certain ideas literally unthinkable. The adjective Orwellian refers to the frightening world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the state controls thought and misinformation is widespread. Several words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered popular language.

Newspeak is a simplified and obfuscatory language designed to make independent thought impossible.

Doublethink means holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The Thought Police are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. Prolefeed is homogenised, manufactured superficial literature, film, and music, used to control and indoctrinate the populace through docility. Big Brother is a supreme dictator who watches everyone.

From Orwell's novel Animal Farm comes the sentence, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," describing theoretical equality in a grossly unequal society. Orwell may have been the first to use the term cold war, in his essay, "You and the Atom Bomb," published in Tribune, 19 October 1945. He wrote: "We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity.

www.tko3.com

Chet Gunsmoke

People prefer to believe that which corroberates their prejudices and gut instinct rather than the facts. This appears to be true regardless of their level of education or economic status.

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