Internet has changed my life more than any other "thing" around, and it has provided me with an enormous wealth - information, knowledge, simplification of otherwise difficult tasks, ease of access to data, solution to problems, connection with people all over the world, possibility to broadcast and publish. And entertainment, online gaming, music, videos, free porn, free movies, paid movies. I could go on, of course.
I believe each of us could compile his or her own personal list of what they love about the internet. But while the priorities would be different, the general idea that it was a revolution of our way of living and a powerful simplification of otherwise impossible or very difficult tasks is probably shared by all.
What is perhaps most surprising is that the free evolution of this tool, in almost 30 years from the early nineties to today, has been mostly virtuous. Of course, nasty side effects do exist - like the existence of a "deep web" where less than agreeable activities can take place, the exploitation of the mean for criminal activities and as a means of controlling opinions for political aims, online scams, viruses. But overall, the balance is IMHO quite in the positive.
Now, as I often said, I feel an obligation to give back something in exchange of the incredible wealth that Internet has given to me. This blog is what I am giving back: a contribution to make the Internet a better place, by sharing information, doing science outreach, providing good information, to the best of my abilities.
The above was an introduction to the real topic of this post: what I would like to talk about today is the need for us all to be careful when we handle this powerful, magnificent toy we have been given. For it is our responsibility to keep it in good shape.
What I mean is that the web contains lots of good information, and lots of bad information too. And search engines are not equipped with the possibility to distinguish the two, at least not until now. I ache every time I see somebody searching for a topic who ends up in a web site that distributes false or misleading information, and accepts that information as true and credible. Sure, this is a failure of the person's capability of applying critical thinking, but it is also a failure of the Internet to provide what it was supposed to offer - a meaningful answer to our queries.
The problem is that web sites earn money in proportion to the visits they receive. So it does not pay to provide true information: false information is much more attractive and earns more traffic. Hoaxes and urban legends earn millions of dollars to their ideators, but they have often a terrible side effect on society as a whole, through their damaging effect on the medium, which becomes untrustable. And in many cases, the distributed false information has a negative impact on society.
I could make dozens of examples, but I will choose a couple.
One is the hoax of "chemical trails" left by airplanes and allegedly composed of poisonous substances has been debunked over and over again, but there stil exist a large number of people who are convinced that somebody is conspiring against them. This feeling has a negative impact on society, of course.
Another is the activity of a few web sites who attract visits by making unsupported scientific claims, engineered to have the highest possible attraction on laypersons. These sites will use some true information as a seed, but will dress it up into a totally false narrative. Putting a hyperbolic title to the piece is crucial to get the attention of unwise readers. The link is then shared through facebook, twitter or other social media, and becomes viral. The damage to society is huge, as the presence of fake scientific information (of much higher attractivity than sound news on science advancements) in those media corrupts any attempt to do good science outreach, and explain the importance of good scientific research to the general public.
Take the image below, which I will not link to the source for obvious reasons. It claims that tonight we will see Mars as big as the full moon in the sky. Of course it is false, as we well know that even though at a favourable opposition (it happens every 15 years), Mars will only have an apparent diameter of 25 arcseconds, thus 70 times smaller than the moon.
As ridiculous as it is, the claim might be perceived as innocuous - whom can it possibly harm? But the point is that it is false, and that it gets viral due to its hyperbolic content. If the web gets polluted with such rubbish, the result will be that it will cease to be a reliable source of information (we could discuss whether this is already the case, but it is not the point here).
I perceive this as a simple signal to noise problem: once the signal is too small, your chances to find it will go to zero, and with them the value of the instrument that allows you to access it.
What can we do to stop this? Little, apparently, but not zero. Some countries are getting equipped with laws that punish who distributes false information online. However, it will be difficult to prosecute all the offenders, who are very hard to trace in many cases.
I have a better idea. Why can't you, who love the internet and its value as a means of distributing valuable and reliable information (for you who can discern it and find it), stop sharing bullshit on social media ? For let's admit it - we all sometimes laugh at the silly things we read on Facebook, and sometimes have the temptation to share them with friends. But in so doing we increase the pollution ! AND we provide more money to the perpetrators of the offence, encouraging to do more of that.
Please STOP distributing fake news, implausible claims, unconfirmed reports, links to sites who only exist to profit from distributing bullshit. Please check the sources before linking less than honourable web sites! Please keep the Internet clean!
And, for goodness' sake, do ***NOT*** link to one such page just to say "look how silly and dumb this is, ha ha", goddamnit!
I, for one, will thank you.
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon.