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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Don't Believe Everything Your Read Online...Using The Filter Between Your Ears

The “Filter” Between Your Ears

I often use this phrase to explain how important it is to teach children how to make good decisions about who and what to believe in cyberspace. I saw this as a filter to misinformation and hype our children are exposed to online. Recently, though, I realized that it is just as (and perhaps more) applicable to adults online. Too many people act out online in ways they would never dream of doing offline. Never having to look someone in the eye makes it easier to act-out with hostile, rude and outrageous behavior. In this case, it is also an outgoing filter.

Truth, in too many cases, has no value to many people online. They sell counterfeit goods on eBay, or steal your identity, or stalk or harass you, posting lies and misrepresenting the truth. They lead their lives by press releases or posts on their websites. And it often works very effectively to meet their hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) agendas.

Unfortunately, in cyberspace what appears in writing, if broadly circulated, becomes reality. If a statement appears on a well-designed website, it takes on a life of its own, and people believe it blindly. So, perhaps we also need to help adults use the same incoming “filter between their ears” to determine credibility of online communications and information that we as children to use. And perhaps this filter is even more important to adults who don’t have Net Nanny installed by their parents to help weed-out the crap. It’s up to us to weed out this stuff, and that requires that we think, and listen and be realistic. Something as simple as “not believing everything they read online” seems to escape many people. And they fall prey to cybercriminals, cyberabuse and manipulation.

We need something to help people think about what they do and say online, about their online behavior and netiquette. Something that causes them to pause before spilling more hate and hype onto our cyber-roadways. Like the monstrous oil spills that kill fragile wildlife in the Alaskan sounds, hate, misinformation and hype kills fragile and positive life in cyberspace. And is at least as hard to clean-up and defend against.

What is it about the Internet and cyber-communications that makes it so easy to misbehave? Is it the false sense of anonymity? (Few communications online are really anonymous. In most cases, either through sophisticated technology or legal process you can find the person behind the post.) Is it the ease of lashing out with whatever you are thinking at that moment? Is the id in online communication that much stronger than our cyber-superego? I frequently liken our online behavior to what we would do if truly invisible. Would we steal from others? Walk into a bank and help ourselves to crisp $100 bills? Or hideout in a dressing room at a fashion show with gorgeous models changing under our invisible nose? Would we spy on our enemies? On our friends? Take the last piece of chocolate cake? Make a crude gesture to our least favorite politician?

Does truth matter anymore? Does a statement made on a website become fact because it is posted prominently. Don’t people realize that they are accountable for what they do in life, whether it is online or offline? Nick Jesandun, the Internet writer for AP did an article last year proposing that people should be licensed somehow before they were permitted Internet access. While I disagreed with that premise, perhaps we should rethink that. But maybe instead of licensing them for all Internet use we should require anti-rudeness training before people are allowed online. Perhaps we should install a filter between their brains and their fingers, to make them think before they type.

Perhaps we should certify that someone is mature enough to use powerful technology. One of the best things about the Internet is that it gives everyone a huge soapbox where they can share their ideas, opinions and perspectives. Even if they are ridiculous. Even if they are far-fetched. Even if they have no basis whatsoever in reality. That means all the kooks, crackpots and malicious people online can use this powerful engine to spread hate, misinformation, hidden agendas and hype.

First Amendment advocates often use the example that it protects Nazis marching in Skokie (a town with a large number of holocaust survivors) as much as it protects the rest of us from governmental censorship. I guess that same example applies here as well. Having a free Internet means that hate mongers, slimebags and crackpots can share their opinions as freely as leading experts, kind and caring people and honest and respectful netizens can. But in the same way the citizens of Skokie turned their backs to the cruel messages and swastikas of the marching bands of Nazis, thoughtful Internet users should turn their backs to those who use the medium to spread hate, misinformation and hype.

Take the first step to reclaiming credibility in cyberspace…”Don’t believe everything you see online, use your head and think before you click “send.” We’d all be much better off.


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