What? The Internet creates “a new age for truth?”

Last night I was watching TV and there was a commercial that exploited the common view that you can’t believe anything you get from the Internet. The credulous young woman who trusted the Internet left the scene of the commercial on the arms of the most ugly, obnoxious boyfriend who she met on the Internet because he was a “French model.” “Bonjour” he says to the other guy, in wry, self-conscious style. The message is clear and plays to cliche: don’t trust anything you get from the Internet.

There’s much to be said for that, as once again I checked snopes this morning when I got another one of the frequent political emails forwarded by friends or family. In 2001 in the first edition of Now Is Too Late I wrote about the emergence of what I called “truth filters” as highly credible sources we would go to check the veracity of what we are being told. They have indeed come to pass in sites like FactCheck and Politifact for politics in addition to snopes and others. I suggested mainstream media might move into that role, and here I was quite wrong as most have decided that speed is more important than accuracy, leaving it to others or the Internet to sort out the truth.

That’s why this article from Nieman Lab called “A New Age for Truth” is so intriguing. Craig Silverman, author of “Regret the Error,” writes:

‘Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of verification.’

Wikipedia is a great example of crowdsourcing fact editing. The Internet as a whole, social media in particular, plays a very important role in helping us get the facts straight. For the simple reason that when someone states something as fact, and someone else hears it, is in a position to know it is wrong, says that it is wrong and why they know it to be wrong, factual errors can be corrected with remarkable speed.  And often, the perpetrator of the error is treated quite rudely in the process, which brings social pressure to bear on making sure you got it right.

While I think this is all good news for getting the facts straight, the over abundance of information and misinformation out there also has a dark side: rumors and their easy acceptance. This article treats this subject with great wisdom. Quoting Dartmouth College researchers, Silverman:

“Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct,”the pair wrote on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website earlier this year. “This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective and can even backfire.”

The acceptance or rejection of facts or messages is primarily determined by the pre-disposition of the audience. The great communication theorist Lazarsfeld talked about the “canalization of belief” (grad school is a long way away so I may have this wrong). He said it was far easier to confirm existing beliefs than it was to change those beliefs. “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.” The Internet contributes to this canalization because there is simply so much out there that if you want to find facts, people, organizations, research, polemics to support your ideas, no matter how far out and crazy, you can find them. Did you know there are 3000 members of the Flat Earth Society?

Job one for almost everyone in crisis and emergency communication is rumor management. If you are the “official” voice you have to be and be seen as the one place people can go to get the truth. But, as this very important article points out there are two things you need to be aware of: if you make the slightest slip-up on the facts, your credibility will be hurt, damaged or destroyed in the blink of an eye and two, if the rumors about you conform to the audiences pre-conceived ideas about you, you are going to have a devil of a time overcoming them.

If that isn’t an argument for addressing audience pre-conceptions that are negative to you or your industry, right now, before an incident, I don’t know what will convince you.