Just Because You Read It Online Doesn't Make it True: Online Content Can Make or Break Your Reputation

The Internet is the instant universal research source.

If nobody relied on the Internet, online smears and attacks would not matter. To paraphrase a Zen master, “if a vandal scrawled insults on a bathroom wall and there was nobody there to read it, would it really be graffiti?” Anonymous lies and smears would go unnoticed, inaccurate information would not be repeated, and reputations would be earned the old-fashioned way.

But, unfortunately, the Internet is the source of every kind of information imaginable. It is hard to overestimated the impact of the Internet. Millions upon millions of people use the Internet to learn about the people they meet and the businesses they interact with. The Internet is the primary source of news, research, entertainment, and information for innumerable people. Almost everyone in the developed world relies either directly or indirectly on the Internet for research into something. The difference between the pre-Internet era and today is the difference between graffiti in a bar bathroom and graffiti on a billboard overlooking Highway 101 in downtown Los Angeles. It is the difference between a classroom note and a full-page advertisement in USA Today. It is the difference between lies that would have once faded into obscurity and a permanent scarlet letter.

The Internet Is Given Too Much Trust

The Internet has the power to shape reputation only because many Internet users trust it. This trust is often misplaced. Anyone can create Internet content, often anonymously (as it described in Chapters 4 and 5). There is no person or computer that verifies that Internet content is complete, balanced, or even vaguely truthful.

Nonetheless, vast swaths of Internet content are accorded at least some degree of trust, which is far more than a lot of Internet content probably deserves. The fact that most Internet content is in print (rather that spoken) and the way that it is presented (through a computer, rather than scrawled on a bathroom wall) encourage blind faith in online content, even though much online content is given about as much thought when posting as a bathroom artist gives when scrawling a drunken graffito. Even if readers take online content with a grain of salt, they still often give too much credit to a false or malicious story; it is a false compromise to assume that the truth must be somewhere between two (or more) anonymous stories, when everything online might be entirely groundless.

At the same time that users are giving too much trust to content found on the Internet, they are also giving too much meaning to its absence. Today, a “Google trail” -- a long history of information that can be found about you or your business through Google -- is  necessary for you to be seen as legitimate. A company with no Google trail is viewed as possibly fraudulent; people wonder why someone who claims to be a leader in her field is viewed with skepticism if there are no trade journal publications about her, blog posts or Twitter “tweets” from conferences, or other relevant online content. It doesn’t matter how many people know about you offline or how many local newspapers wrote about you in the pre-Internet era: if it doesn’t show up in Google, then it doesn’t count. Many people think that if something doesn’t exist in Google, then it probably doesn’t exist at all.

The Internet also provides such an easy way to perform research that it has replaced many more traditional sources. Before the Internet, researching a company or product often involved a trip to the local public library to dig up old newspapers on microfilm, check the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or at least dig through dusty issues of Consumer Reports magazine. These sources were never completely accurate, but at least they were written and edited by professionals, subject to corrections, vetted by librarians, and published by companies concerned with their own reputations for accuracy and completeness. But, today, it is possible to perform nearly any kind of research online, from the comfort of one’s home, at any hour of the day. You can wake up early to perform research or stay up late. Frankly, you don’t even need to wear clothes to perform research online. It is so easy to perform research online that few people bother to check offline sources anymore. But many Internet users still have not learned how to apportion trust to online sources that might not be trustworthy, complete, or accurate. Of course, there are plenty of websites that present reliable information written and edited by dedicated amateurs, but there are also websites stocked with half-truth, bias, slander, and outright lies -- and few ways to tell the difference between the good and the bad.

Today, even professional journalists have been caught cribbing their stories entirely from the Internet. The prestigious The Times (London) founded in 1785, was caught red-handed relying exclusively on Internet research when it published a list of the “Top 50 Rising Stars” in European soccer. The paper listed a Moldavian player named Masal Bugduv as the thirtieth hottest soccer star. It turns out there is no “Masal Bugduv” anywhere in the world; he was nothing more than an elaborate Internet hoax. But, because the author relied exclusively on online research, he was easily fooled by a series of fake news releases. Had the newspaper performed even a tiny amount of offline research -- perhaps by making a phone call to “Bugduv’s” alleged coach -- it could have avoided major embarrassment. Fortunately for fans, local coaches took the time to perform their own research before signing “Bugduv” to a contract.

Of course, if an anonymous hoaxter can fool the Times into reporting on a fictional soccer star, other tricks can fool millions of others. And many tricks are not nearly as innocent as pulling a newspaper’s leg. False reports started online can destroy real-life reputations, break up families, and shorten careers. And, as the “Masal Bugduv” story shows, false information online can quickly be echoed in print publications. The print publication then supports the false online information, leading to a cycle of self-reinforcing false information. This is the so-called Wikipedia echo effect, based on the tendency of lazy journalists to collect their “facts” from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and then the tendency of Wikipedia to cite those same journalists as proof of the (possibly false) facts.

Excerpted with permission from their book, Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier.

 

 


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