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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Prove it — how the internet makes everybody right

The interest is both a blessing and a curse. —
Russell Wangersky explains why the interest is both a blessing and a curse. — 123RF Stock Photo

It truly does all depend on your point of view.

Want to stop drinking alcohol for the month of January, the so-called “Dry January”? A few clicks of the old internet search button, and you can find a series of articles extolling the practice, suggesting that a January break is a much-needed respite after the overindulgence of the holiday period.

Want to keep drinking through the month at your usual pace and forget about January abstinence?

You can search and find articles that support that outlook as well.

Here’s liver specialist Dr. Mark Wright, speaking to The Telegraph: “Giving up alcohol for a dry January as some sort of detox is like maxing out your credit cards all year and thinking you can solve your financial problems by living like a hermit for a month. It just isn’t going to make things better if you then go back to your usual habits in February.”

Thank goodness, you might think. Pass the bottle.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Moderation across the board is probably closer to the key to a long and healthy life, but people aren’t looking for moderation.

They’re looking for affirmation — affirmation of whatever they already believe.

And the truth is, whatever you believe — no matter how wild, outlandish or unsupportable it is in the real world — you can be sure to find some support for it somewhere in the great wide internet.

If you want to ignore climate change, for example, you can harvest articles from the thin remaining stream that supports your position and ignore everything else, even as big banks, oil companies and the insurance industry point out the effects of ongoing climate change and warn about the mitigation that’s going to be necessary to, in some cases, quite literally keep our heads above water.

No matter where the scientific evidence points, you can dig out some contrary position and hang your hat on that. Don’t want to vaccinate your children to protect them against diseases that ravaged children’s lives before vaccines? There’s bound to be some quasi-scientific crackpot willing to back you up somewhere with an internet salve just convincing enough to let you justify putting your children's — and other people’s children’s — lives at risk.

In some ways, you might claim that the internet is to blame for the world we now live in, where dogmatists on both sides dig in their heels, quote their own self-affirming sources, and deny everything else.

But it’s a poor carpenter that blames their tools.

I’ve been in the information business for more than 30 years, and you can’t say anything to me that would change my opinion that the internet is the single most valuable tool that has ever been built to rapidly share information and put it to work.

It supplies information, ideas and fascinating material at a rate that would have been incomprehensible mere decades ago. (It can also supply cat pictures, videos of goats falling over a fence, and cute otters eating dog food, all of which I saw just before writing this.) I can find things through a keyboard in minutes that it would have taken me weeks, even months, to track down through the shoe-leather work I would have had to have done when I started in the business in the 1980s.

While the quantity of information that’s available has grown exponentially, there is the problem of the quality of that information.

One problem, though, is the same as it has ever been. While the quantity of information that’s available has grown exponentially, there is the problem of the quality of that information. One of my first news editors was fond of the saying “Paper lies.” You might have what looks like a smoking gun on paper, but you still have to test that material by interviewing the people who wrote it and the people it affects.

You have to test the paper, not just use it to support whatever you already believe.

Now, there’s not as much testing going on; things move faster, are sloppier, and are deliberately misused for fun and profit.

I’ve also been in the opinion business for decades, and I know the seductive lure of finding precisely the study or scientific paper to back up a position I already want to believe.

It’s that seductiveness that is letting a great power turn into a divisive weapon.

It’s not the internet that’s broken.

It’s us.

Recent columns by this author

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Tip-toeing through the resolution minefield

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Priming the hate pump at our peril

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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