Someone with access to the internet does not have all the world’s information at their fingertips, but it certainly feels that way.
The dawn of the internet shot the information age light years ahead. Resources like Wikipedia, dictionary.com, sites that compile news together from multiple sources, and access to unlimited TED talks and history documents and videos all make the internet into an endless well of information. All of these things have revolutionized the way information is spread, and it has done wonders for society.
But with information there is disinformation. Russia’s infamous web-brigade campaigns are not the only ones spreading lies and heavily exaggerated truths. Political and corporate agendas have taken to the internet to push their campaigns forward at any and all costs. Knowing what is true and what is “fake news” is a skill we as a society are far from perfecting, and over the next few generations we will be refining our ability to discern the truth from lies.
However, most of us know that — we just disagree on which sources are true and which are pushing false agendas.
The great lie isn’t who is telling the truth and who is leading us astray. The great lie is that the truth, in all its complexity and nuance, can always be found online. Have you noticed that the more time people spend online, the more they believe themselves to be truly informed?
The problem is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Key points might be entirely left out of an article if the journalist did not discover them. I have seen a news story of a drone strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan, with zero combatants reported dead. The reality was that we were involved in a firefight on the ground, and the U.S. couldn’t talk about it at the time. One civilian was killed when the Taliban moved to another building and engaged us from there — when some of our guys returned fire, a woman was killed. One dead civilian, arguably their fault, and several dead Taliban militants.
The Taliban reported this to journalists as: a drone strike killed a bunch of civilians. They threatened the civilians on the ground to report this same story, and when the journalists did their due diligence — they found multiple, on-the-ground sources — they all came to the same conclusion, and wrote it up as a drone strike. Who could tell them otherwise?
Not long later, the U.S. actually did kill some civilians via drone strike when they were trying to target someone else.
These sorts of complexities make issues almost impossible to understand from a distance. The fact that you may not be able to know everything, and therefore can’t have informed opinions, is unfathomable to many. With all the news articles, scientific documents, access to history, we feel like we know everything — or at least, that the truth is accessible online if we just look hard enough. And more often than not, that is not true.
This is partly why we live in a representative government. If the people had complete rule over every decision made, they would be making uninformed decisions directed by the media and other sources of information. The internet hasn’t changed that one bit, though it may have emboldened them into thinking they know more than they do. How many of the people discussing police brutality and inner city violence actually know what they’re talking about? And if the answer is that they don’t know what they’re talking about, what good is it to pretend like they do?
This isn’t to say that people can’t have opinions about anything — it’s to say that sometimes it may be wise to realize that you are not, in fact, an expert in many fields. I am certainly not.
The hard reality is that in order to have fully informed opinions on a thing, you have to be involved in it. I did not understand the war in Afghanistan until I fought in it, and to presume otherwise would have simply been inaccurate. I also learned is that there are big chunks of that war that I still don’t understand.
It takes a level of humility to admit that you don’t know something, and this is an area that I struggle in when I feel passionate about certain aspects of U.S. politics. Most people will agree with this and say, “well I don’t know everything.” But if you ask them about foreign policy with North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, the social divide in America, gun laws or the education system — well then, you’ll likely get an earful. Some people have statistics memorized about each and every one of these issues, but have no personal experience in the field and so have no real grasp on how it works. They are observers, taking all their information from the internet which, on top of all its conflicting information, will never tell you the facts it doesn’t have.
People have always been know-it-alls, but the internet has pushed this forward by making them feel validated when they memorize some statistics and re-hash some news articles they read last week. They find an expert in a field with their informed opinions and then disregard the opinions of experts in the same field who say the opposite. If there are definitive answers to be found on the internet, they are very difficult to come by and take a lot of time and research to find — and even then, they are going to be suspect to the “you don’t know what you don’t know” rule.
If you’re thinking this applies to a political party (or group of people) other than yourself, then maybe you ought to look at your own beliefs and where they come from before looking at others. Do they come from your career and/or personal experience on the subject? Do they come from in-depth research and years spent deciphering the internet and filling those gaps with other sources of information? Or do they come from some in-depth browsing on the internet over the course of a few weeks? I am as guilty of all of this as the next guy.
The internet is a great gift. It has provided education and opportunity for people all over the world, but don’t think it is something that it’s not. It does not make you an expert on foreign policy. It does not allow you to understand what it means to be a police officer in a bad neighborhood, nor does it allow you to understand what it’s like to grow up struggling in inner city Chicago.
All we can really do is keep an open ear, stay as informed as possible, and seek information both online and out in the world around us. If you talk to everyday people you are going to get a different story than what you find online, almost every time. That in and of itself is pretty telling.
The right answer is to become an expert on one thing, and strive to understand and change it with everything you’ve got. The reality is that it might take you a lifetime to change that single thing, but realize that most people go their whole lives thinking they are doing a whole lot, while doing nothing at all. One major change is a pretty significant victory.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay, compiled separately.