In 1993, The New Yorker magazine published the cartoon “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog” by artist Peter Steiner. More than two decades later, this simple illustration continues to highlight the double-edged sword that is the internet’s ability to widely spread information effortlessly. This is a powerful force multiplier for both good and evil, even more so if the information is wrong, or worse, deliberately misleading with no way to hold anyone accountable for the malicious activity. A few years back I wrote about how easy it was to misinform “the public” resulting in adverse consequences, a trend that seemingly culminated into a highly effective political strategy of deliberately spreading false or misleading stories on Facebook and other social media platforms. Unfortunately, fake news purveyors are upping their game and have now descended to building counterfeit websites that ape actual, legitimate news organizations, hoping to further obfuscate research into an article’s legitimacy now that social media news readers have become a little more savvy.
How does an average citizen tell the real from the fake?
As you might have already noticed, conning someone via the internet has become increasingly more likely and common. Where before we could roll our eyes at obvious spam emails filled with broken English and ridiculous schemes, our mailboxes and social media accounts are flooded with well-funded and cleverly disguised content that appears legitimate, and because no one has the time investigate every single thing we receive, we take the most expedient path to discovery – we click and consume without engaging some critical reasoning, the internet equivalent of finding out if milk is bad by taking a swig before giving it the sniff test. Unfortunately for us, clicking a bad link or passing along a fake news story will result in way worse consequences than a mouthful of sour milk. Dealing with bad milk is easy – toss that carton in the trash – but how do you hold accountable someone (who might or might not be a figurative dog) on the internet?
All hope is not lost. While it may be misleading to fear that anyone can remain completely anonymous on the internet, it’s actually still difficult to accomplish this. Maybe less so when you have the backing of a nation-state and an army of hackers whose full-time job is to cause disruption through fake news, but the tool they use, the internet, still sees and tracks everything, and spreads the truth just as freely and quickly as the false information. For now it will be a competition to see who can spread information more effectively, and the only way good prevails if we the audience engage our brains to the fullest whenever we take a dip in the currently muddy waters of the internet.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net