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24th February 2015

What has instant information turned us into?

The Internet isn’t making us stupid, we just don’t know how to deal with so much information

Last weekend the Internet was flooded with the news of the death of Tony Hart, the creator of the Morph animation, who died from ill health, aged 83. People posted links to his Guardian obituary and thousands remembered fondly his legacy and expressed their sadness at his passing.

There was only one problem. Tony Hart died from ill health, aged 83, six years ago. It apparently began with the absent-minded mistake of a 33-year-old from Kent, whose wife had seen it on Facebook, and so tweeted out “RIP Tony Hart.” He found out half an hour later and corrected his mistake, but by then it was far too late.

Even public figures such as Frank Turner and Conservative candidate James Cleverly tweeted about it, and eventually the character Morph himself stepped in to say “Tony sadly died in 2009.”

This is the Internet, and we can recognise that insignificant events such as this can get wildly out of hand extremely quickly. But has the Internet made us naïve?

These days, celebrities are rumoured to have died on almost a monthly basis. In the past few years alone, rumours of the deaths of Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Murphy, Matt Damon, and scores more have torn through Twitter feeds, causing reactions verging on hysteria.

Often these are intentional hoaxes, unlike the Tony Hart incident, but the reach of this false information and the speed it spreads goes to show how dramatically the Internet has changed our means of communication.

Spoof news websites like the Onion and the Daily Mash are now extremely important in this age of instant information. It’s important not to doubt the power and influence of satirical news sources. In 2012 the Onion story ‘Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex’ caused outrage on Facebook. Thousands believed the headline and were enraged, sharing the link and proclaiming just how barbaric it was, including a US Congressman.

While these sites first and foremost provide entertainment and satire, I’m sure that a large proportion of us have fallen foul of reacting to a fake headline before realising our mistake. What they actually serve to do is encourage us to source our information reliably and check its accuracy.

I don’t think many of us are quite used to the sheer quantity of information available online, and this clearly leads to many believing things that a quick Google search would unequivocally show up as false. The speed of looking information up doesn’t help either; in the past, finding information in a book or physical newspaper made it more difficult to make drastic mistakes as people do now.

Being still a young resource, the Web holds an odd level of control over people’s beliefs. It seems very easy to believe something you read once on the Internet, even when you’re aware how unreliable it can be. Many would gladly believe a crackpot anti-vaccine conspiracist writing a blog post riddled with grammatical errors over mountains of dry and somewhat impenetrable scientific research into the benefits of vaccinating children.

The Internet is huge—in fact, unimaginably vast. There are at least 1.2 billion websites—that is individual, unique hostnames—so the amount of information available at the click of a button is practically unfathomable, and bound to trip us up now and again. It has skyrocketed, and continues to at an exponential rate. It has become far more than the sum of its constituent parts. Perhaps we’re not used to its potential yet, or perhaps we’ve created a sort of Tower of Babel and are doomed to failure.

Do outpourings of sadness for actually-not-dead celebrities show how insincere we’ve become? In short, yes. The responses to every ‘death’ number in the tens of thousands, showing it’s not just a vast amount of information we can access, but a vast audience. We’d rather be seen to be sympathetic to a potential few than heartless to potential millions, and the Facebook-era culture of earning coveted ‘popularity points’ serves only to fuel this.

Would you exaggerate a story, or even tell a white lie, for a lot of retweets? I don’t doubt you probably would—I know I would. The Internet, ubiquitous of the forward-surging modern age, also highlights people’s primal fears and desires. We are terrified of being left behind or disliked, and reduced to working for more friends, likes retweets, upvotes, and ever-newer versions of Internet currency.

But, in reality they mean nothing. Not that there’s anything wrong with the mass approval method of entertainment, a fair and effective way of finding the best content, for the record.

What the Internet can offer, on the other hand, is a diamond mine of information.

Of course, much of it will be lies. Much of it will be Chinese-whispers-style misinterpretation; much of it will be useless. But never before in human history has so much collective knowledge been available so incredibly conveniently to so many.

Social media may have turned us into popularity-craving, disingenuous, joke-recycling automata, but the Web itself is a resource of which we have barely scratched the surface. The possibilities of creation and innovation are, truly, endless.

So no, the Internet has not made us stupid, but at the moment the human race is like toddlers with an encyclopaedia. Give us time and we will thrive.

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