Many Catholics are familiar with an anecdote about Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595). A woman confessed the sin of gossip. Saint Philip gave her an unusual penance. She was to take a feather pillow up into the tower of the Church. Then she was to open the pillow and let the wind blow the feathers away. The last step was to collect the scattered feathers.
The story highlights the nature of gossip. Once the words are out of our mouths, they spread with the speed of the wind. Once spoken, the effect is impossible to retrieve.
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If that lesson was important during the sixteenth century—and it was—it is even more so in the Internet age. A lot of the “information” on the Internet is little better than common gossip, and it is all too easy to hit the “share” button to spread it around.
Fact or Fiction?
Indeed, the frenetic intemperance found on the Internet makes people want things instantly, effortlessly and without reflection.
Thus, we should ask how to separate facts from untruths on the Internet. I unexpectedly got some help from Stanford University’s Civic Online Reasoning (COR) project. The site is primarily intended for teachers designing lessons.
Unfortunately, those at Stanford cannot refrain from using a bit of educationist jargon. In this case, the term is “lateral reading,” which means to check one website by using another one.
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The process centers around answering three critical questions:
- Who’s behind the information?
- What’s the evidence?
- What do other sources say?
Who’s Behind the Information?
Everything on the Internet is there for some reason. Discerning that reason helps to evaluate the information’s reliability.
We all understand that the reliability of advertising is suspect. The Internet treats its postings as if it was an advertisement. No matter the purpose, the goal is to convince viewers to spend time looking at it. Professional website developers arrange the material so that the site’s intended audience will find it compelling. That depiction may or may not be accurate.
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For example, some months ago, I wrote an article about the National Sex Education Standards. The document’s title implied that it was produced by a national body of educators or officials in state or national education departments. However, a close reading of the so-called national standards showed that they were the work of four organizations, all of which took radical positions on sex education. None of them claimed any official affiliation justifying the term “national.”
In effect, this official-looking document was a propaganda exercise. Thus, readers need to look behind the fancy façades and find out who is presenting the information.
What’s the Evidence?
It is easy to make sweeping statements and imply that opinions are facts. After finding how who said it, readers must check out the stories. That process has two steps—analyzing what the website says and determining if that information is credible.
Thus, the readers should rely on pertinent facts, commonsense, quotes from credible sources or statistics. Beware of photographs, images and graphs that can be manipulated to distort evidence.
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After objective proof, readers should also consider whether their experiences verify the information.
What Do Other Sources Say?
No matter how convincing a website may be, the final step consists of verifying the information by looking at other sites. Better websites will include links to places where key information can be verified.
Some time ago, I came upon a quotation with a link to the transcript of a press conference. When I looked at the transcript, my understanding of the original quote words was a far cry from the transcript.
Our Lord reminded His listeners that “And in your law it is written, that the testimony of two men is true.” (See John 8:17.) That is also a good rule of thumb for the Internet. Look for confirmation from other sources.
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The First is Not Always the Best
Finally, never assume a site is more authoritative because it comes up first when you do a web search. The processes by which search engines list results are closely held secrets, but the result is based on algorithms, not truth.
On the Internet, as in most other places, the watchword is caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware). Too many website purveyors resemble those against whom the Prophet Jeremias lamented, “How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, and that prophesy the delusions of their own hearts?” (See Jeremias 23:26).
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