There is a stupid notion going around that the news media would be better off if anyone and everyone got to make a contribution to it. Blogs and podcasts are examples of this and reader-generated electronic "newspapers" are beginning to spring up. People who should know better see this as democratizing the flow of news and information.
It may do that, but it also makes quality control very difficult. Unlike an open source application, which may have many contributors, but in the end either works or doesnt work, the truth or falsehood of a Wikipedia entry can be hard to pin down. And even if the entry isnt totally false, as in the case of the entry that libeled respected journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr., the news can easily be twisted to-and-fro to make someones point.
Disinformation is easy to distribute when there are no checks and balances and readers have little way of distinguishing trustworthy sources from propaganda. You may or may not like CNN, The New York Times, Fox, CBS, et al., but at least you know each organizations track record.
Each has an editorial process designed to separate fact from fiction that, on any average day, does a pretty good job. Each also has a commitment to presenting "the truth," even if there can be some disagreement as to what that may be. The Internet offers no such process, commitment, or track record.
Brian Chase, who has admitted he was the source of the Wikipedia entry, saying it was a gag, lost his job amid the publicity hes generated. Seigenthaler, who is more generous than most people would be, has asked Chases employer to rehire him and says he wont file the libel suit Chase so richly deserves.
At the same time, Seigenthaler has complained that Internet privacy made it hard for him to track down Chase when he discovered the bogus entry in the Wikipedia, touted as the worlds largest encyclopedia.
Written by thousands of volunteers, some parts of the Wikipedia are almost impossible to edit. How could a volunteer editor have possibly known—without a great deal of research—that the Seigenthaler described in Chases entry didnt really exist?
I have been concerned about this new, online "citizen journalism" becoming the source of more disinformation than truth, a concern that actually extends to most of the Internet. Like them or not, big media companies at least offer some level of accountability. No such accountability exists on the Internet, either on the Wikipedia or thousands (tens? hundreds of thousands?) of Web sites purporting to be journalism.
Just as spam, phishers, viruses, rootkits and other malware have turned the Internet into a security nightmare, so I believe information vandals, such as Brian Chase, will turn it into an information nightmare as well.
Think of Chase as one of the early hackers, doing things not to be evil but just to prove whats possible. Fast-forward a few years and Chase will be replaced by those who distribute intentional falsehood for profit, not just fun. In fact, he already has been.
The financial markets have in the past been affected by intentionally false information spread over the Internet. As I remember, a young man went to jail in that incident. I wish the same fate could befall the spammers who every day send me dozens of "news alerts" telling me to buy stocks Ive never heard of, suggesting the promise of great profits if I do. That the profits wont come to me is somehow never mentioned.
Brian Chase has done us a favor by demonstrating just how easy it is for Internet "facts" like those found in the Wikipedia to be polluted by falsehood. Just as were learning not to open e-mail from strangers, we will also need to learn to ignore news and information from them as well.
After Brian Chase, big media doesnt seem so bad, after all.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.