Something shocking has happened in the world of information. It turns out that there was an error in the Wikipedia, a deliberate error introduced into an article for fun by a couple of stoned college students. This is as shocking as the time that other factual error was found on the Internet.
The hoax, such as it was, concerned the fictional character Amelia Bedelia, stating that she was based upon a maid in Cameroon where her author spent some time growing up.
She was instead based on a maid in Equatorial Guinea, so you can understand why exposing the hoax was so important.
No, actually the whole Cameroonian maid thing was completely made up, and the person who helped put it into Wikipedia now feels a little bad about it, not so much for what it says about her, but for “what it says about the future of information in the digital age.”
Trigger warning: Nazi reference coming up.
Joseph Goebbels once said that if you tell a lie enough times, it makes it true. I always thought that was the bullshit self-justification of a sociopath and professional prevaricator, but now that I’ve seen the process of a lie becoming fact firsthand, I think there’s some credence to it.
That’s not the lesson I would draw from this. First of all, the Goebbels quote isn’t accurate, and the way it’s phrased is absurd. Telling a lie enough times doesn’t make it true, period.
The real quote is: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
That at least makes more sense, and it’s definitely true, at least for some people. There apparently are people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States, because some people will believe anything.
But, at least according to Wikipedia, the Goebbels quote might not even really by a Goebbels quote. It was attributed to him by a 1946 publication of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Supposedly, no reliable source has been found.
In cases like this, we have to make a judgment, believe Wikipedia or believe the HUAC. I’ll go with Wikipedia any day.
As for the hoax, nobody saw a lie become a fact. A lie was quoted as a fact. People believed said lie. Apparently a number of gullible people repeated that lie in writing as a fact, but it was still a lie.
To draw that lesson, we’d have to think of every repeated untruth as a fact. The birthers and the flat earthers aren’t stating facts. They’re just babbling untruths.
I also don’t see anything especially relevant to the future of information in the digital age. Goebbels wasn’t living in the digital age, and yet Nazi propaganda techniques were pretty effective.
But we could go back throughout history for plenty of examples of such stupidity. Politics and war are both areas that tend to generate a lot of stupid claims that people believe, and always have been.
Whatever side people are on during a war, they’ll happily believe in stories of atrocity committed by the other side, while ignoring any evidence of actual atrocities by their own side.
The same goes in politics. Today’s gullible simpletons go on about the Muslim dictator in the White House. But political losers always whine about how awful the sitting President is, and they’re happy to believe anything bad they hear, no matter how implausible.
A few years ago there was the hoax about Presidential IQs, claiming George W. Bush has the lowest IQ of any President in the last sixty years, at 91, and that his father has an IQ of 98. I’m sure plenty of gullible liberals lapped that story up with glee.
Whatever it is that IQ supposedly measures, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bill Clinton had more of it than George W. Bush, but you’d have to be pretty gullible to believe either Bush had so low an IQ.
Lying about Presidents and Presidential candidates is as old as the United States. Brace yourself: George Washington might not have chopped down a cherry tree.
So is this an example of the way a lie becomes a fact? Or maybe an example of how people should check their sources, as good librarians should tell them to? Even worse, it is a lesson about Nazis? I hope so, because I hate those guys.
Instead, I think it provides just another example of how a lot of people are gullible and lazy.
Librarians might talk about information literacy and the importance of finding reliable information, but people only want reliable information when something really matters, unlike their political opinions or who a fictional character in some children’s books is based on.
When people are going to pay money for something, for example, they want reliable information about it.
Oh, wait, except for all the people investing in subprime mortgages or buying lottery tickets. Okay, I take it back. People don’t want reliable information. They want comforting information.
People are gullible and lazy and prefer comforting, easily found, and easily assimilated information to reliable information. That’s why librarians are always fighting a losing battle.
The Internet might proliferate misinformation faster than ever before, but people have probably been like that since there were people, so for the last 6,000 years.