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Truth and the Internet

I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true.
We were reminded this week how an awful lot of people — some of them probably otherwise reasonable — are willing to accept something because somebody posted it online.
As Mark Wineka reported in a column Thursday, a woman’s recent cell-phone video shot in the parking lot at a Concord Walmart got a lot of traction when she uploaded it to the wild web.
According to the woman’s running commentary, the video — shot through the windshield of her car — depicts “illegal immigrants” who are “new to America” loading and unloading from a bus while shopping at the store with “government subsidies” for supplies to take back to their “shelter” in China Grove.
The woman posted her video on Facebook, and it took off. From Facebook, it migrated to YouTube, from which it was picked up by other sites. The day Wineka was writing his column, I got a call about it from a guy who directed me to a website called madworldnews.com which had posted the clip along with some editorializing of its own.
The biggest problem with this production turned out to be that none of it was true. The people in the video are actually legal guest workers at a local farm, some of whom have been coming to Rowan County for 20 years. And the cards they were using to pay for their purchases? Loaded with money from their employer, not the government.
But never let the facts get in the way of a good diatribe, right? Although a disclaimer has been added to the YouTube edition, a number of sites still have the video up with nary a word about its complete absence of accuracy. Apparently, truth is in the eye of the beholder through the jaundice of his agenda.
What’s more, in the Internet age, even “truth” can be crowdsourced. And even people who are trained to check their sources can be duped.
Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout has been called many things: phenom, MVP, the next face of baseball. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he was called “The Millville Meteor.”
The 22-year-old superstar grew up in Millville, N.J., and graduated from Millville High School. But it wasn’t until his second year in the big leagues that someone added the nickname “Millville Meteor” to the Mike Trout page on Wikipedia, where anyone can edit anything.
The citations the “editor” listed for the nickname were fakes, but it didn’t take long to change that. Within days, actual news organizations had picked up the nickname and used it in their pieces on Trout, which gave the pranksters real references to replace the fakes. ESPN used it and even Trout, who had never heard the nickname before it appeared on Wikipedia, started signing it on baseballs.
And that, apparently, is how facts are born online.
Some efforts are even more ham-handed and still manage to attract true believers. Their numbers are legion and they come in websites, chain emails (There is no part of sharia law in Obamacare. Look it up.) and anything else that can be used to spread scat all over the Internet. The folks at snopes.com have built a whole livelihood out of checking into these rumors, and I wish I’d thought of that first.
But not everything rises to national prominence. It’s easy to start a blog, call it something that sounds like a news operation, and say whatever you want. They are countless, and they attract followers by posting “news” that mainly just reinforces what a certain group already believes, with little or no regard for facts. And, as we saw this week, anyone with a cell phone is a potential documentarian although, again, accuracy can take a back seat to prejudice.
So before we leap to conclusions, let’s agree to check the facts. Even the Internet can’t be right all the time.

Scott Jenkins is news editor of the Salisbury Post.

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