The reliability of online information has been a serious concern since the start of the digital age. And I recently found myself stuck in a rather uncomfortable situation in regard to an online review of my novel, “Karaoke of Blood.”
After someone posted a punchy and quite favorable review of my book on Amazon, I decided to let book reviewers know about it. I cut and pasted the five-star review into an email and sent it out to a list of a couple of dozen book critics. It was a mass email, and I really didn’t think anything would come of it, but I thought it was easy and simple online guerilla marketing, so why not?
A few days later, I did a Google search for the title of my book, and one of the first results said that Dwight Garner, an influential staff book critic at the New York Times, had just called it one of the best books of 2011.
Yes, my heart stopped. Yes, Pulitzer visions danced in my head (or at least American Book Award visions).
Then, my heart stopped for another reason. A search result lower on the page clarified Garner’s praise – he didn’t say that my book was one of the best of 2011, he said that the NAME of my novel (“Karaoke of Blood”) was in the running for one of the best TITLES of 2011.
Yes, just a slight difference.
What happened was that another critic at the Times, food writer Kim Severson, thought Garner meant “book” when he wrote “title,” and she told her readers via Twitter that Garner had chosen my novel as “one of the great books of 2011.” So, now I was in a position where I could easily take Severson’s comment about Garner’s review and circulate it as legitimate praise of my book. And if anyone called me on it, I could say it was just a simple misunderstanding – after tons of people had already bought the book, obviously.
I never once, for a second, actually thought of using this misinformation because I like to think I have worked my whole career to establish the kind of reputation of someone who would not do that. (Garner subsequently cleared up the confusion in another tweet.) But if I hadn’t any scruples, I could have had one of 2011’s great books, if only briefly, and undeservedly.
That entire crazy episode got me thinking about value of online information in general and how easy it is to take liberties with facts in this era of instantaneous publication. Perhaps the most egregious recent example was when fans of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) editorially attacked Wikipedia to make the information there gibe with some errant historical gaffes she had made. According to an article on Daily Kos, "[I]t appears that her supporters have altered Wikipedia to make it appear that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father, even though he was only a child when his father John Adams, America’s second president, signed the Declaration of Independence.”
But just how insane or rare is such an act? Perhaps things are actually better for the fate of information in a wide open web. In the past, as the saying goes, the winners wrote history. It took decades, if not centuries, for progressive historians like Howard Zinn to set the record straight, or at least give a full account, in books like “A People’s History of the United States.” And while Bachmann supporters certainly “rewrote” American history, the new democratization of information allows legions of dedicated truth-seekers to immediately set the record straight.
Or does it? The web is a place brilliantly designed for people easily to create new identities for themselves. Often times these identities don’t match up well with reality. Two amazing recent examples involved separate cases of men being outed as having posed as lesbian bloggers. Both said they were trying to advance the cause of gay rights, but their rationale fell flat with many. According to a comment posted on a story about one of the bloggers on the Daily Mail’s site, “The narcissistic drivel that this man uses to justify his actions is very telling.... By engaging in this activity he has made it that much harder for any later legitimate blogger to be taken seriously. Rather than advancing anything or anyone this poor excuse has set back the cause of freedom and human rights by a significant amount.”
So can anything published online be trusted? That’s like saying can you ever trust anything that the government tells you. The answer: No, you can’t.
In an article about on the 30th anniversary of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Incident, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) wrote that, “by reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.” In short, reporters reported what the government told them, which was not the truth, which led to one of the most shameful chapters in American history.
So the current focus on whether or not information on the internet is completely accurate completely misses the point. We will always live in a world of no truth, half-truths and whole-truths, and that’s the absolute truth. But if you’re looking for a way to increase accuracy and veracity on the web, democratizing access to information, and the ability to critique it, is an excellent place to start.