The rise of blogging as a tool for communicating to both our intended and potential audiences is undoubtedly a revolution for media, for individuals and for business and governments generally. But because of the way communications tools and major search engines work, the blog has also become a fertile environment for blind acceptance and propagation of the most uninformed and downright dangerous advice that litters the internet.
In this extended post I explore how blogging can be misused in generating and disseminating misinformation. But let me be clear – there’s more hope than despair about blogging, herein…
As an advocate of emerging technologies (I describe myself as a Technology Evangelist), it is usually my job to help businesses and individuals understand how blogging can be deployed effectively as a means of keeping up conversations with clients, with friends and with those who share your interests or passions. But all too often, I’m forced to defend the integrity of blogs as a tool for communicating, because some individual has set up a lobbyist blog or has made a post on their generally rational journal, which is now acting as a hotbed of discussion and debate and is based on erroneous or libellous information. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. The fact that in the age of blogging, everyone is a publisher, means that there will inevitably be episodes of inappropriate or inaccurate information propagation online.
And of course this isn’t new, nor are blogs the only culprits of mass misinformation. For years, corporate bandwidth has been battling under the duress of bulk emails that are comprised of either fictional or even well-intentioned but misguided advice, often embedded in some hideous Powerpoint presentation, and usually urging users to send the message on to everyone they know, in order to protect the recipient’s friends, relatives and colleagues from various forms of harm. The trouble is that the more blogs and blog posts that perpetrate or repeat inaccurate advice, and the more that others link backwards and forwards to each other on the subject, the more likely it is that such fiction will be taken as fact.
One of the greatest aspects of Google is its PageRank technology which works by taking a search query and checking how many other sites link to that string of words. Unlike previous search engines that used categories or checked how often a string of words was included in a page, this search technique was harder to ‘hack’ because it understood the notion that if other people are recommending reading something, then the more people do that, the more likely it is that the information is accurate, or at least what you are looking for. Essentially, the PageRank search technology exploits the fact that people are better filters for information quality than automated tools. The effect of this marvellous feature is that users of the internet increasingly view content gleaned from a set of Google search responses as factually correct, reliable information.
Trouble is, that’s not always the case. And it’s not being helped by the massive growth of the blogosphere.
In March, the global blog monitor, Technorati (http://www.technorati.com/), reported that they were tracking more than 70 million blogs online, of which roughly 21% or 15.5 million are active (publishing regular posts). Blog growth is still massive with more than 120,000 new blogs being established every day and increasing use of idea tagging and social bookmarking initiatives such as del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/) and Digg (http://www.digg.com/) being used among regular bloggers as a catalyst for blog posts, discussion and debate. And as more and more blogs are emerging online, and more people are recommending information to one another via those blogs, or via social bookmarking facilities, the more likely it is that blog posts, or sources cited by blog posts will be returned in searches on any search query.
The very technology that made Google so reliable a search engine is therefore facilitating diffusion of misinformation via blogs.
But, fortunately for all of us who are advocating the use of such technologies in business contexts, this is a problem that is relatively easily solved. Indeed the problem of lots of misinformed human filters is best solved by lots of human doubt.
For generations, academics have been espousing the value of critical analysis as a means of establishing the legitimacy of theory and rhetoric. And the profession of journalism was built on the notion of providing checks and balances on political and public practice. Now we are all connected in this information society, it becomes crucial for all consumers (or ‘produsers’) of internet-mediated content to treat all information received with a very healthy degree of scepticism. Indeed, the very structure and conversational architecture of blogs enables this form of analysis and debate. It’s just that we are living in a brief window of time when users are more likely to treat information they receive from a trusted source as accurate rather than doing their own bit of investigation before passing messages on.
What we need is a change in our human behaviour for online content consumption. And there are enough avenues for checking the veracity of information online. The kind of information that is sent via email as a warning is best checked on Urban Legends pages such as Snopes (http://www.snopes.com/). And for all its faults, Wikipedia is a superb vehicle for enabling debate on the truth or fiction of ideas and messages.
I’m confident that eventually, this (mis-)use of blogs in generating and regenerating misinformation will be lessened to a point of negligible importance over time. But for now, we need to beware of the blog. Not because it is a cesspool of fiction and iniquity, but because in changing our behaviour in using it – in being aware – we can collectively harvest more value from the tool than harm.