The misinformation cow path

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Unlike former Vice President, and unsuccessful Presidential candidate, Al Gore, who once claimed he “created the Internet,” I actually had a hand — albeit a small one — in the creation of the online phenomenon.

In the 1980s, as the “Special Assistant to the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science and Technology,” I was one of the staff members who worked on transferring DarpaNet from its secretive home in the American industrial military complex to its new home with the National Science Foundation with a new name called the Internet.

At the time, none of us knew if the Internet would amount to much of anything.  Personal computers were still in their infancy, cell phones were mostly installed in cars and much of the plans were more promise, at the time, than reality.

Technology, however, moved fast and Internet web sites began to spout in the late 80s and early 90s.  I created my first web site in 1994 and started a political news web site on October 1 of that year.

A group of us gathered each week at the restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, to talk about the “new media.”  The Washington Post created an online presence called “Digital Ink,” which ran on dedicated software and was not widely available on the ‘Net.  I didn’t last long but a newer Internet site later emerged and the Post became a player in the New Media.

Steve Case, a young guy with a lot of ideas, fashioned a new online service called America On-Line.  Others worked on an Ohio operation called CompuServe.  By the end of the eighties, most of us worked on Apples, or IBM PCs or clones.  Macs offered a lot of promise.

Still, it was hard to define what was, or could be, the “new media.”  Blogs brought spread of information — and, sadly — also misinformation.  Howard Kurtz of CNN wrote that “anyone with a keyboard and a modem could be a publisher.”

By the end of the century, I wrote more than 75 percent of my news stories for online publications and published more photos online than on paper.

Nowadays, some of those who profess to be the ones who chronicle what happens in a technology-driven world tell me that “new media” is no longer practiced by us who consider it a living and point instead to “social media” as the place to be if you want to disperse information to a wide audience.

If so, then “new media” is now a coarse, often profane, expression of off the wall commentary that is based more on bias than anything else.

Name calling is the norm.  Participants of one local Facebook group recently called a woman activist “a bitch” and worse — even employing a four-letter word that is used to describe a part of the female sexual anatomy.

A number of our public officials have withdrawn from such groups.  Locust Grove Supervisor Lauren Yoder left such groups, saying the tone was too obscene and filled with bias.

New groups pop up almost daily with each promising to be more “open” and more outrageous, which raises the question of whether rage and hate are “open” or more attributable to a closed mind.

If “free speech” is little more than a right to scream at obscenities at someone you despise, then one must question both the intent and use of freedom itself.

Social media has become a sewer of hate, bias and misinformation that harks back to “forums” like “Free Republic” on the right or “Democratic Underground” on the left.  Useful information gets lost when hate and bias take over any discussion.

As a newspaperman, I’m the last person to advocate censorship but it would be nice to see a little self-imposed restraint and, perhaps, some maturity online.

Back in the 1980s, when we talked about something new called “the Internet,” someone called it “the information super-highway.”

Instead, it may now just be “the misinformation cow path.”

Like too many grandiose proposals, the harsh reality of human fallibility sidelined the initial concept.

One Response to The misinformation cow path

  1. The lesson is that poor choice of words can get blown up into satire and partisan propaganda. .. or just become a sideline anecdote in an interesting personal story. I liked this summary of Al’s cyber-foot-in-mouth problem.

    “But to be fair to Gore, his statement referenced what he had done in Congress. The Internet was the commercialization of the work done at DOD, and by most accounts, Gore’s efforts had some impact. He was the prime sponsor of the 1991 High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, generally known as the Gore bill, which allocated $600 million for high-performance computing. Gore, who waged a two-year battle to get the bill passed, popularized the term “the Information Superhighway.”

    “The Gore legislation helped fund the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where the Mosaic Web browser was first developed by a team of programmers that included Netscape founder Marc Andreessen…”

    — “A cautionary tale for politicians: Al Gore and the ‘invention’ of the Internet”
    http://wapo.st/184heOj