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We all need a BS filter

Sept. 15, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

What was touted as the information age sometimes seems more like the disinformation age.

Quite often, the problem is not that we aren’t given enough information, it is that we receive too much information.

This abundance of material can be treacherous.

Much of the information we receive is either bogus (not genuine) or specious (seems plausible at first glance, but untrue).

What we need is a filter to weed out the bogus and specious information; a BS filter, as it were.

If more people used such a filter, life would be less cluttered.

Consider for a moment the people who assume every wacky e-mail they receive is absolutely true.

Without bothering to verify the information, they forward the nonsense to every address on their e-mail contact list.

Within seconds, disinformation can be disseminated to hundreds or even thousands of unsuspecting victims.

If the person who originally received the message had used his BS filter, the offending message would have gone no further.

BS filters are not new. In the days when people got much of their information (or gossip) down at the local pub or coffee shop, they would automatically screen this information through their BS filters based on their experiences and the source of the information.

If the speaker had proved reliable in the past, the listener might give the news more credence.

If the source was known to be full of flannel, or to have an agenda, the recipient would be much less likely to believe what he said without independent confirmation.

Some people seem to lose this ability to filter information when it is written down, as in an e-mail or on a web site or blog.

They assume that if someone took the time to type it, it must be correct.

This is a dangerous assumption.

The writer of an e-mail or blog may be working in a mud hut on the other side of the world, in his mother’s basement, or in an expensive office. It is much more difficult to identify a person online than it is in a coffee shop.

There are all sorts of e-mails that people assume are accurate, when in fact they are no more legitimate than the e-mails concerning enhancement products, international pharmacies, or amazing lottery notifications.

A BS filter is a handy tool to have when one is sorting e-mail.

The same is true with blogs. Reading multiple viewpoints can help us understand an issue, but this does not mean that everything we read is true.

There is value in using new technology to find information, but it requires discipline.

More and more often, press credentials are being issued to independent bloggers, which can give them a semblance of legitimacy.

The information these blogs contain may seem credible, but one must remember that they are very different from traditional news outlets.

Newspapers and other established sources have earned their credibility.

They are, and should be, held accountable for what they print or broadcast, and their reputation depends on the accuracy of their reporting.

Independent bloggers are not held to the same standards.

Ethical responsibility is part of every journalist’s training, and it is a regular topic of discussion in newsrooms.

No such training is required to start a web site or send an e-mail.

News outlets generally strive to make clear distinctions between opinion and fact. It is for this reason that Herald Journal separated the news logs from the blogs. Just as the viewpoints page is separate from the news section in the print version, there is separation in our online products. The news log is intended to provide objective information, the blog is intended to encourage community participation, and the forums may entertain and include the opinions of contributors.

Information travels incredibly quickly today. When disinformation is disseminated, either intentionally or as the result of ignorance, the damage is done almost instantly.

Even if the information is subsequently found to be false, it may already be too late.

For example, if false information is spread about a political candidate, it may be enough to change the outcome of an election.

If false information is spread about a private individual or a business, there may be permanent damage, even if the information is proved to have no merit.

We must ask ourselves where we want to get our information. Do we want to rely on established sources, or on clowns with no accountability and an axe to grind?

If one needs surgery, is it better to rely on a guy down at the bar who claims to know everything there is to know about medicine, or should one seek out the services of a licensed physician? This may seem an extreme example, but the situations aren’t all that different.

If we make important decisions based on questionable or unverified information, it is a bit like taking medical advice from a barfly. The information may be accurate, but would one really want to bet one’s life on it?

In the digital age, it is difficult, if not impossible, to control the information that is sent out. Things simply move too fast, and unscrupulous individuals are forever working out new ways to scam the populace.

We may not be able to control the information that is out there, but we can control our part in it, and refrain from propagating inaccurate information.

It is important now, more than ever, to view information with a critical eye, especially when it comes from an unknown source.

If we are vigilant, and use our BS filters to screen information, we can help to keep ourselves and others from drowning in a flood of disinformation.