It has become obvious over the past decade or so, that the Internet, and social media apps in particular, have come to dominate our lives in a way that few might have foreseen. We have begun to depend on them as sources for most of the news we receive, for keeping in touch with friends and family throughout the world, for exchanging pictures and videos, for home-based learning and working, and for entertainment of all kinds. We have gone digital, wireless, live stream and connected, often without really realizing the impact and consequences of this insidious and powerful technology.
Among the biggest casualties of this transformation have been truth, facts, science, confidence, trust and privacy. We used to believe in the experts, the learned, the experienced, and in particular, the journalists and the news media. With unlimited access to the world wide web, the underinformed, the misinformed, the crackpots and the manipulators have had a field day in disseminating conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated claims and disinformation that is polarizing public opinion, creating corrosive doubt and mistrust of many of the fundamental cornerstones of our social and political systems, undermining any kind of rational approaches or policies that are crucial to our survival as a species, and exploiting people’s naivete for fraudulent or self-serving purposes.
The bottom line is that the internet has significantly eroded our capacity for critical thinking. We are so bombarded by information, or what passes for information, that we are overwhelmed and unable to sort out the wheat from the chaff. We have become too credulous and believe too much of what we see on the screen without taking the time to assess the validity and truth of what is there. To this end, I would suggest a short “Survival Guide” to follow whenever we plant ourselved in front of that mesmerizing screen, be it on our computers, tablets or smart phones.
Rule number one is to never accept anything posted as fact until you have independently verified it yourself and know the details of who or what the source is. There are a number of reputable fact-checking sites that are very useful for debunking disinformation of misinformation. Snopes.com, wikipedia.org and factcheck.org are among the most prominent. Just doing a Google search on a particular topic will provide a variety of sources that you can use to check the validity of something posted. Google the website address of a post and research who is doing the posting. Especially important is to not get all your news or facts from one single source. We all saw during the Trump era, how some so-called news sources or networks were brazenly putting forth “alternate facts” if not outright lies that were dangerously close to inspiring sedition and insurrection.
Of course, the corollary to this is that you also not repost anything until you have verified it to be true. The worst posts of this kind are political or racist screeds that claim for instance that refugees or immigrants get significantly more in welfare support than the Canadian poor, pensioners or veterans. Another common malicious type of post slams the government for spending billions on foreign aid while shortchanging our poor, our disadvantaged or our veterans. Such posts are as vile as they are untrue.
The recent COVID crisis has also seen a rash of arm-chair “experts” touting all kinds of bogus claims and cures regarding the coronavirus that are causing a large number of people to die needlessly because they mistrust the real experts in the medical field. It seems incredulous, but there are people that will believe some dubious claim made by some unknown individual on Facebook, rather than the almost unanimous consensus of doctors and immunization specialists who have dedicated their lives towards gaining the expertise necessary to fight such pandemics.
Rule number two is to not publicly divulge personal information about yourself that can be used to steal your identity. There are literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of hackers out there that have gotten very creative about getting you to divulge this kind of info. There is not a day goes by that some Facebook friend of mine doesn’t post some cute “get to know you” innocent question about what was the name of your first pet, your middle name, your first car, the first school you attended, what is your favourite book, your favourite teacher in high school, etc. What you should realize is that these are some of the same questions that are used for security verification when you sign in to secure web sites or accounts. Replying to these questions is like handing a smart hacker easy access to all your accounts.
Lastly and most importantly, be aware that not all opinions you are exposed to in the media are equal or should be given equal weight. We need to get back to a fact-based, scientifically supported frame of reference when it comes to important issues. We need to fine tune our ability for critical thinking and judgment. There are a lot of crackpots and deranged minds on the internet. Do not give them the exposure and attention they crave.