Information Has a Disease

In Comment, Non-fiction on June 4, 2012 at 5:31 am

Written by Alex Ashley

“Information is not knowledge,” said Albert Einstein.

            I can see him now: Perched within the tranquil confines of the garden of his Mercer Street home in Princeton, New Jersey, he lets this single, solitary realization drift above the chaos of his burdened mind, almost as a caveat for the Information Revolution.

It’s true that the globe is literally pulsing with information—nearly all of it rapid, instantaneous, and available at any time, as if ordered from the dollar menu at a McDonald’s drive-thru.  But with this immediacy come liability, and the burden of sifting through fact and fiction.  One could conclude that information has a disease of sorts, contracted and carried through headlines, 5 o’clock news, and Facebook status updates.  Because of the “need for speed,” when it comes to presenting information in this day and age, this unique strain of inexactitude easily poses a threat to the media literacy of the nation—scratch that, the world—and the poor, baffled souls that are “the media,” are all too often its carriers.

In March of this year, to cite an example, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that a 43 year-old Italian schoolteacher from Rome, Tommaso De Benedetti was found to have been using the Twittersphere to play the parts of several high-profile characters on the world scene.  Using a fake Twitter account, De Benedetti hoodwinked global information sources with his tweets under such names as Henning Mankell (a writer from Sweden; the Swedish papers swiftly began quoting Mankell’s supposed “tweets”), Italian prime minister Mario Monti, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Kim Jon-un, leader of North Korea, Cristóbal Montoro, Spain’s hapless financial minister, and even the Vatican’s number 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.  Some of De Benedetti’s tweets:

@CardBertone: His holiness Benedict XVI has passed away. We announce the news with
great pain and consternation. 8 March 2012.

@PresHamidKarzai: The attack against Afghan civ is an act of war. 12 March.

@presMarioMonti: The news of the death of Fidel Castro has been confirmed to me by
EU vice-president Olli Rehn. 6 March.

@MinistroMontoro: The Spanish government announces the death of the director Pedro
Almodovar. 23 March.

Humorous? Perhaps a little.  But here’s the sad part: the media ate it up.  Front pages on papers everywhere were splashed with news stories based on De Benedetti’s fake tweets, not to mention their circulation around the rumor mill of social media.  When asked about the purpose of his hoaxer activities, he said: “I wanted to see how weak the media was in Italy.” After his fake tweeting was exposed, he turned to good old fashioned email, writing to the International Herald Tribune criticizing the Libya war.  He signs the email Umberto Eco (Italian semiotician and writer).  Printed.

A unique strain of inaccuracy.

It is brusquely obvious, dear reader, that it is indeed a “brave new world” we live in.  The Times They Are a Changin’.  The droning, curly-haired Dylan was right.  It isn’t that there exists no good in the world.  Need we waste life and thought with a “trust no one” mentality? It isn’t the goodness of humanity that is in question, but rather the accuracy of the information on which we rely, and the fidelity of its sources.  The need for an upswing in media literacy for writer and reader alike has never been highlighted with such vivid, fluorescent urgency.

Having said all of that, there is a positive angle to all of this.  Never has the brainpower and aptitude of the masses been so thoroughly allowed to stand alone, no training wheels attached, and be put to the test.  It is an exciting and adventurous stretch of human history we are living in.  Days begin, and days conclude, with opportunities afforded us in between to be thinking people, to dig deep for the meaty facts of life, rather than be spoon fed the tepid drivel so characteristic of this age of “instant information.”

It’s true what Albert said: “Information is not knowledge.” Afterall, information is just data.  Facts.  The black and white.  But knowledge is the acquaintance of such things, and knowing how to use them correctly, discerning what they mean.

It’s our job to convert one into the other.

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