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Getting past the Web’s nonsense

Posted by Paul Seaman in Interrogating the Media / Media / Money / Society / The Good Corporation / Truth & Trust on 17 September 2008

Why we posted this: The web – especially in Web 2.0 mode – spreads dangerous nonsense. Sure, but we should hold our nerve and redress the balance.

The original stories:
Easily caught in a web of sinister untruths
 David Aaronovitch
The Times
16 September 2008

Warning sounded on web’s future
BBC Online
Pallab Ghosh

Summary of the stories:
The internet needs a way to help people separate rumour from truthful material and real science, says Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web. He is increasingly worried about the way the Web has been used to spread disinformation. In response he has helped form a World Wide Web Foundation to address the problem and to help improve the Web’s accessibility.

livingissues comment:
These stories are important. The web does favour mob opinion over fact, evidence and objectivity. A classic example is the recent panic about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Big Bang experiment producing an earth-swallowing black hole.

But we should remember there’s nothing new about panics and scares. And bigotry is not unique to our century. Web 2.0 merely transmits them faster. It simplifies the process and lowers the cost. Besides, Web 2.0 innovations such as wikis, Twitter, blogs, video posts and the like, equally facilitate – on a gigantic scale – the distribution of evidence, reason and co-operation. 

The question is how do we help users – now accounting for 20% of the world’s population – spot what’s trustworthy content and what’s not?

The answer lies in the use of traditional methods and rules long-applied to assessing published material’s credibility. People need not be lost in cyberspace. Back here on earth there are plenty of sources of trust. That’s the essence of Wikipedia’s commitment to real-world references for its material.

As a PR, I add this. Companies and politicians have a special duty to get their messages out online, and to deploy honest evidence and science as they do it. Their presence on the web needs to be a beacon.  

There is a greater apetite than ever for an “Establishment” which earns trust by robust honesty.

If Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation introduces an effective means of branding credible sources that can be trusted, then that would be a big step forward. But the real trick is for those who speak for firms, parties and other institutions to develop a powerful sense of responsibility.  

That involves proactive PR, very much so. But it is much more important than that. It’s about staying in touch, remaining relevant, transferring knowledge and maintaining our culture as technology develops.

Andrew Keen was right to worry about Web 2.0 and the “the cult of the amateur”. But we need not be stuck here. The thoughtful world can fight back.





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  1. [...] protecting, an effective means of branding credible sources we can trust should be developed. I think so, too. This is a debate everybody involved in Web 2.0 PR has a legitimate self-interest in shaping. [...]

  2. [...] don’t pretend to have all the answers, though I do explore some of them here. My starting point is that the PR industry has a very big stake in the outcome of this debate. We [...]

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