Nan Gao
Dylan Marks
Andrew Peterson
Chester Shiu

CS 201
Stanford University

Ethical Issues

What is the digital divide? | Credibility on the Internet

Credibility on the Internet

As more people turn to the Internet to gather political information, the credibility of online information becomes an important issue. Several characteristics of the Internet contribute to its tendency to produce less reliable content than traditional news sources.

  • Few financial barriers to entry. Traditional news sources like radio, television, and newspapers all require multi-million dollar investments. The high barrier to entry effectively acts like a filter for specious content because no one would be willing to invest that much money to go into the business of providing un-newsworthy news. On the other hand, producing content on the Internet is dirt cheap. All that someone needs is a computer and Internet access. This lower barrier to entry enables a website owner to cheaply and easily produce whatever he or she wishes.
  • Fewer financial incentives. Traditional news sources exist not only to deliver news but also to make a profit. Therefore, they have a number of incentives to not publish incredible and sensationalist stories. In order to maximize profit, these organizations must try to reach as wide of an audience as possible. They must “have broad appeal to popular tastes, [be] not too far left or right, not too torrid or puritanical, and not too assertive of anyone’s perspective [Denton210].” Also, these organizations stake their livelihoods on their reputations. The financial penalty from loss of readership due to a false story can be quite large. On the other hand, many websites on the Internet do not exist to make money, but to spread personal opinions. Such opinionated sites rarely offer both sides of the story.
  • Mass authorship. The people who write for traditional news sources are presumably qualified for journalism because they were hired to do that job. However, there is no such standard for authors on the Internet. Anyone with a computer, Internet access, and an idea can become an author.
  • Need for speed. Because the Internet is such a dynamic medium, users have come to expect constantly refreshed content. To satisfy demand and to beat competitors, websites will put up information quickly rather than taking the time to verify its authenticity. Even though this desire to “scoop” competitors exists in traditional news sources, it plays a more important role online because of the dynamic nature of the Internet.
Even though plenty of questionable information is out there on the Internet, one would hope that the average user would be able to distinguish the CNN’s from the Drudge Reports. However, a particularly malicious consequence is when a respected journalist unknowingly uses a false online source to write his or her own story. By doing so, the journalist lends his own credibility to the false information and propagates it to the general public. Exactly such a thing happened in 1996 when respected newsman Pierre Salinger was convinced by conspiracy sites into believing that TWA Flight 800 was destroyed by US Navy missiles [Denton 220]. Although the cause was very uncertain at the time, Salinger vehemently backed his story believing that his sources were reliable.

Credibility issues have definitely found their way into online politics.
  • Campaigns are more likely to put up more negative and inflammatory ads on the Internet than on traditional news sources. Consider the following advertisement sponsored by the Democratic National Committee criticizing President Bush’s Social Security Plan.

    Social Insecurity Flash Movie

    Had this ad been run on television, it might have prompted indignation because of its satire and hyperbole, but ads like this one are the norm on the Internet. Furthermore, ads like this do not employ logical and reasonable arguments as much as they should. Instead, they try to sway voters purely based on entertainment value.
  • Online polls are pervasive on the Internet, especially in the months leading up to an election. However, many of these polls are not conducted with a good statistical foundation. Rarely are these polls a good sample of the entire voting population. Some do not have safeguards from repeat visitors. For a passerby who is visiting one of these sites, these online polls can offer a skewed representation of the true public opinion. This becomes particularly dangerous because of the bandwagon effect. A voter might vote for a candidate if he or she perceives that public opinion already heavily favors that candidate. On the other hand, a voter might not vote for a candidate if he or she believes that that candidate has no chance of winning. In either case, a poorly managed online poll can have significant consequences.
  • In the 2000 presidential elections, news organizations affiliated with the Voting News Service (VNS) made premature calls regarding the result in Florida. These organizations included major news networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS. On election night, at approximately 7:49pm, they called Florida for Al Gore. This was 11 minutes before some polls had even closed in the Florida panhandle. The next morning, they flip-flopped and gave Florida to Bush. However, they had to alter their projection again when the true vote count was determined to be too close to call. A phone survey conducted later asserted that more than 2000 Bush supporters decided not to vote after hearing that Gore and already won. The networks’ over-anxiousness to report results is a response to the public’s constant thirst for up-to-date information. This thirst has been cultivated in part by the nature of the Internet, where news sites are updated hourly if not more often.
“America gets much less breaking of news these days than breaking of rumor and wild speculation. Blame that on talk radio, the Internet and 24-hour news channels for redefining information as any piece of raw meat that pulsates.”

-- Howard Rosenberg, LA Times

Since political events can have far-reaching effects on the entire nation, the issue of credibility becomes especially important. If people are making political judgments based on websites, they have to be especially careful of the sites’ reputation and credibility. Because the Internet is a relatively unregulated domain, the burden is on users to determine which sites are credible and which sites are not. This is often a difficult task considering that a lot of information on the Internet is undocumented. Nonetheless, the political well-being of our democracy depends on citizens being well-informed and able to make rational decisions based on their beliefs. Hence, this burden is one that must be shouldered.