Accuracy in the Information Age

One variation on a pithy observation that’s been attributed to several people, including Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, and others, goes like this: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

That old adage takes on added significance when information is moving all over the globe at the speed of light, which, I’m told, is rather fast. In our age of mass communications, with hundreds of TV channels, radio, satellite radio, the Internet, Usenet, cell phones, etc., etc., one must be ever vigilant for untruth. Regardless of whether it’s deliberate lies or innocent mistakes, untruth is sent around the world at warp speed. It is then quoted, replicated, copied, and sent on its merry way again, and again, and in no time folks are in possession of “false information.”

The problem of false information is compounded when so many people blog, tweet on Twitter, opine in Comments areas, and relay “chain e-mails” by merely pressing the Send button. False information, misinformation, disinformation, bad data, etc., spreads like a virulent bug, infecting websites, databases, and our brains.

Another wrinkle in the fabric of info is the advent of online resources like Wikipedia. A wiki is a collaborative website that is maintained and edited by users. (“Wiki” is Hawaiian for quick.) In 2008 Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute conducted an interview of author Tom Wolfe, who said: “They're interesting these memoirs and autobiographies because they're like Wikipedia -- some of it may be true.”

Mr. Robinson then piled on with: “If only inadvertently.” In any event, since that interview seven years ago, Wikipedia has become a real go-to resource; some of our more serious writers use it constantly and put links to it in their articles. So I’m now going to do something really weird, I’m going to link to the entry for “Wikipedia” … at Wikipedia. (How “meta” is that?) If you scroll down to the Contents box and click on “7.1 Accuracy of content,” you’ll see that Wikipedia is a pretty responsible outfit – at least according to Wiki. They’re constantly monitoring their content for error.

When an online resource or journal makes a correction, it’s made in one place and is immediately good for all readers, unlike the print media. Still, mistakes are inevitable. Even the venerable old Encyclopædia Britannica contains mistakes. As of 2010, Britannica no longer publishes their print version, which weighed 129 pounds. Corrections will be much faster with their online version.

Dictionaries, whether online or wood pulp, also make mistakes and seem to have biases. Their definitions for political terms can be quite questionable. On CNN's "Larry King Live" in 1995, Walter Cronkite opined:

I define liberal as a person who is not doctrinaire. That is a dictionary definition of liberal. That's opposed to 'liberal' as part of the political spectrum.... open to change, constantly, not committed to any particular creed or doctrine, or whatnot, and in that respect I think that news people should be liberal.

(So a political conservative can be a liberal, right, Uncle Walter?)

In the Information Age, we need to do like the “liberals” tell us to do, which is to “question authority.” But we need to question all authority, be it the Oxford English Dictionary,, Britannica, Wikipedia, the New York Times, CBS News, or whatever. In the Information Age, skepticism is a cardinal virtue.

Not only the info one gets off the Net, but all “information,” whether digital or print or heard coming out of the mouth of some authority figure, should be held suspect until one has vetted it and gotten secondary and even tertiary sources to back it up. Even after all that, one might still be wrong.

The truth of many untruths can be quickly ascertained; it merely concerns facts. But the serious untruths, the out-and-out lies, aren’t as amenable to correction. The big lies aren’t just about facts, they’re about “narrative”; opinion masquerading as fact. The big lies are difficult to dispel because people can have their identities wrapped up in them; they want to believe them. Even when the truth is known, the big lies continue to circulate, and not only via the Internet, but through print as well.

Indeed, the lies begun in the new and in the old media cross-pollinate, and then take on a life of their own. Elected officials might then adopt the lies that began in the media, like the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative of the incident in Ferguson, Missouri. And when FBI forensics knocks down a lie, we’re told that we shouldn’t let that detract from the “larger truth.”

A 2003 story that was full of lies was “PlameGate.” The lies in that affair are too numerous to get into, but they began with a July 6, 2003 op-ed in the New York Times by Plame’s oleic husband Joe Wilson. In “Plame Out” at Slate in Aug. 2006, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about smear merchant David Corn’s part in spreading these lies.

What Twain & Co. surely meant is that fact-checking, corroboration, and such don’t stand in the way of the liar. And those committed to the truth must disprove the liars by doing all the leg work that the liars should have done before they went public… which takes time.

Anyway, I’ve broached a huge subject here, and I can’t begin to do justice to it in the space allowed. So I’ll conclude with a story about how I sleuthed out the facts of a rather trivial matter:

Last year I was writing a little article about rules, and I wanted to work into it some dialog from Joe Wright’s movie Anna Karenina (2012). To get the exact quote and maybe a link for my article, I Googled the movie’s title together with “she broke the rules” and Google returned thousands of hits including a page of quotes at the Internet Movie Database (or IMDb) with this: “Countess Nordston: Anna isn't a criminal, but she broke the rules!”

The Countess Nordston was played by Alexandra Roach, who played the Young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I was quite ashamed of myself for failing to recognize Ms. Roach. Luckily, I had DVR’d the movie and quickly found the scene, and I’m here to tell you: Alexandra Roach is most definitely not the actress in the scene.

The only thing for it was to ascertain the name of the character speaking the lines, which meant tracking down Tom Stoppard’s screenplay. And in that document one finds that the character in the scene is Varya, Vronsky’s sister-in-law. (Varya was played by Hera Hilmar.) But here’s the kicker: the first part of the IMDb quote (“Anna isn’t a criminal”) is spoken by Vronsky, and only the second part (“but she broke the rules!”) is spoken by Varya. Therefore, the IMDb quote is doubly wrong. Movies often diverge from what’s in their screenplays, but the following dialog from Stoppard’s screenplay did make it into the movie intact:

VRONSKY: Will you call on Anna?

VARYA: Oh, Alexei . . . I’m fond of you . . . but . . .

VRONSKY: For God’s sake, Anna isn’t a criminal!

VARYA: I’d call on her if she’d only broken the law. But she broke the rules.

Each part of the IMDb quote appears but once in the screenplay. So, the IMDb quote for Countess Nordston is likely just an error. However, if one Googles “Countess Nordston: Anna isn't a criminal, but she broke the rules!” within quotation marks, one gets 75 hits, including one at Wikiquote, and even one in Russian!

So with a little detective work I was able to obtain for my article the correct characters speaking the correct lines. But the IMDb quote is just a mistake; we shouldn’t make too much of it. Such trivial untruths will be with us always. It’s the deliberate lies that we gotta watch out for.

Here’s the happy twist in this: Just as lies can travel around the world at the speed of light … so can truth.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.