Just Because It's on the Internet Doesn't Make It True

Thursday, August 28, 2014

We are re-airing this interview which originally aired on June 30, 2014. 

Digital information spreads rapidly, reaches all corners of society, and is basically impossible to control—even when that information is false. Charles Seife look into the Internet information jungle and explains how to identify and avoid the trickery and fakery that’s so prevalent online. His book Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? takes on breaking news coverage, online dating, Wikipedia, and more.


Charles Seife

Comments [6]

John Culpepper from Broooklyn

The story told on the Leonard Lopate may be a convincing narrative, but it is not the whole truth. It turns out that Philip Roth's biographer went into wikipedia anonymously and deleted what he considered an inaccurate fact without either identifying himself or offering any explanation. Wikipedia's rules state that you are supposed to justify wholesale deletions, otherwise it could possibly considered vandalism. That the unexplained deletion was instantly reversed shows that wikipedia was working as it should be. Since such protocols exist to *protect* Philip Roth's reputation, not to harm him.

This is the original entry that Roth and his biographer objected to and successfully suppressed: " critic Charles Taylor argues that Roth had to have been at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a man identified as Creole who spent his entire professional life more-or-less as white.[1] Roth states there is no connection, as he did not know Broyard had any black ancestry until an article published months after he had started writing his novel."

I would have written the above entry differently, perhaps, but it bothers me that Lopate and his staff don't do a more complete fact check, but rather just go with the "sexy" but untrue narrative.

Aug. 28 2014 05:10 PM
John Culpepper from Brooklyn

It is a misconception that you can go into wikipeidia and change a fact and that it will then stand, bingo, because of the magic of your authority -- as in the case of Philip Roth's indignant biographer. Your authority means nothing on wikipedia. I have successfully changed errors on wikipedia, but it is a long process that sometimes takes months or even years. You have to build consensus on the talk page and have more than one secondary source to back it up. You also have to be prepared to go back again and again and patiently make the same correction until your point finally gets across. You can then expect it to stand. I enjoy this process. I find it like detective work to search out "reliable sources" (on the terms given by wikipedia) and couch them in language that will be accepted by the widest public, but, obviously, busy professionals like Philip Roth's biographer find it frustrating. They want instant deference and are scandalized when it is not forthcoming. Nevertheless, it is the longtime commitment of numerous anonymous amateur editors that make wikipedia as accurate as it is.

The fact is that anyone can go into wikipedia an check the history of an edit, as I just did. I found, ironically, in this case, and, as I suspected, what was reported on the Leonard Lopate show is not what really happened.

Philip Roth's biographer went in, at first as an *anonymous* editor -- not as Philip Roth's biographer, and tried to change a statement someone had made there. Only when his change was reverted did he reveal his identity as an authority. Moreover, the fact in question was not that Philip Roth based the protagonist of "The Human Stain" on Anatole Broyard, a very prominent historical figure, but that rather, various reputable published reviewers and critics (reliable sources) had *claimed* (erroneously, according to Roth) that he had done so (there are certain parallels). Roth, however, denies *any* relationship. This is his artistic right. Roth and his editor wanted to *suppress* the information that some very reputable people believe this despite his denials. Roth's wishes have been respected because of wikipedia's "biographies of living persons" policies, and the information is now gone. In my opinion Roth and his editor have willfully and frivolously made the article *less* accurate, since they want to censor any discussion of the matter. However, there is a history of the discussion that is available on wikipedia's talk pages for anyone to see, if they are curious.

Aug. 28 2014 01:23 PM

There are (at least) two types of Internet venues. The BS ones -, wonderwall, etc. and the supposedly 'serious' ones - NPR, CNN, NY Times. And there are many, many, many sites with one foot in the trash who like to pretend that they are respectable. They make their money by thriving on the veneer of actual news but actually just present clickbait.

As I see it, serious journalism has a lot of work to do in order to present clear guidelines to aid consumers from telling the difference between content from one and making certain it is not mistaken for content from the other. Our government (especially in a country with a First Amendment) has abdicated the role of a separator between reality and BS. (certainly that cannot be what the founders intended.)

Existing journalistic criteria have been severely trashed by our rush to put everything online.

Aug. 28 2014 12:49 PM
Joe Mirsky from Pompton Lakes NJ

I ran across an article in the literary digest about a South American gold archaeological site, I forget which, and researching it further, the Wikipedia article about it said it was discovered 3 years after the article was written. Attempts to correct it were to no avail.

Aug. 28 2014 12:38 PM
Katie from Queens

I disagree with your guests assumption that because my news is being "tailored to me" I am not receiving info that might change my mind - or not hearing opposing opinions. I would classify my news sources as liberal - and I am continually having my beliefs challenged and I have changed my mind about current issues many times based on information I have read online at truthout, opensecret, politico, or heard on NPR or watched on NewsHour. I also read and monitor so called "conservative" news sources to be sure I am not missing anything. I'm not!

Aug. 28 2014 12:30 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I disagree w/the statement that before writing, knowledge wasn't transmitted beyond a few generations. If someone invented a better way to make a stone axehead & taught it to all the community's axehead makers, that improvement could be used in that group for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years.

Aug. 28 2014 12:26 PM

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