Recently, the Pew research group interviewed Americans on whether the Internet makes them better informed:

A large majority (87%) of American adult internet users say the internet has improved their ability to learn new things. This figure includes just over half (53%) who say it has improved their ability to learn new things “a lot” and 34% who say it has improved this “somewhat.” Just 13% see the internet and cell phones having little or no impact in this area.

Are we all better informed? Actually, we may just feel better informed.

We feel better informed because, on the Internet, it is easy to find out things we didn’t know. But there is another side to it.

An American defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, received criticism when he<a href=”” target=”another”>said</a>:</p>

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Some journalists found his statement incomprehensible. and that’s too bad, because that last part pertains to the Internet today.

Our biggest information problems usually come from the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

Maybe younger people understand that better. According to Pew:

Interestingly enough, some of the heaviest users of the internet are less likely to believe that other Americans are benefiting from internet use. Younger adult internet users (those ages 18-29) are the least likely to believe the internet is making average Americans (66%) or today’s students (67%) better informed, and instead are more likely than their older counterparts to say the internet has no real impact. About one in five young online adults say the internet has had no real impact on how well-informed average Americans (23%) or today’s students (19%) are.

Now, this may in part be because they grew up with new media and can’t even imagine how hard it once was to just get needed correct information. Would you like to go to the library in a snowstorm to check the spelling of the name of a North African city—only to discover that the library is shut due to weather conditions? Kid, welcome to the 1970s.

But younger people may also be more aware that the Internet sponsors a great deal of false information. For example, last time out, I talked about social media bots, those automatically generated fake friends and followers, often promoting products. There are also fake Facebook pages, whose express purpose is to cast disrepute on the actual page. How many of us knew that?

Then there’s the world’s most widely consulted information source, Wikipedia. As a recent Slate article notes,

Wikipedia is amazing. But it’s become a rancorous, sexist, elitist, stupidly bureaucratic mess.

For example, as David Auerbach tells it,

Recently, an adequate and fairly neutral page on “Cultural Marxism,” which traced the history of Marxist critical theory from Lukács to Adorno to Jameson, simply disappeared thanks to the efforts of a single editor. Rather than folding it into the narrower but deeper “Critical theory” page, the editor replaced the page with one on the “Frankfurt school conspiracy theory,” which obsessively and somewhat offensively dwells on the Jewish presence in these schools of thought and the right-wing and borderline anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around them. (The reason the editor dwelled on these irrelevant conspiracy theories instead of the thinkers themselves is unknown, but the changes are certainly troubling.) After bewildered complaints, Wales restored the original page and asked for an extra week’s debate on the sudden and drastic shift, sparking outrage from a cabal of editors who favored the change. Whether the change will win out will be determined less by truth and more by the stubbornness and comparative popularity of the editors and the administrators backing them.

Most of the online source’s core articles have failed its own standards.

Granted, no media source is perfect (including this one), and all encyclopedias have biases, of course. But Wikipedia celebrates the anarchy of the Internet. As a result, the problems above and many others that preclude accuracy will be difficult to even address seriously, let alone remedy. I didn’t know any of this until I started researching it.

And there may also be a trend developing in online media towards dropping the option to comment . Comments can be homes for trolls, but they often reveal additional information as well. Information you may need but don’t know you don’t know.

Reuters is the latest:

In simpler words, news stories are playgrounds for comment trolls and keyboard warriors. Whether Reuters no longer wants to make that sort of vitriol so readily visible on its pages, or it simply doesn’t want to deal with having to weed out the abusers itself, is unclear.

One obvious response is that every online medium needs a troll monitor, and some media may need preapproval of comments.

If “reluctance to weed out the abusers itself” is due to financial considerations, then that may signal a struggling medium. After all, the old-fashioned newspaper had a Letters Page editor (similar to preapproval of online comments). If the newspaper could afford it, why can’t media now making the transition to online?

At any rate, more information is not necessarily an asset if there is no practical way to assess its worth.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...