New SFGate Post on Crap Detection
June 30th, 2009

I just posted Crap Detection 101 to my SFGate “City Brights” blog:

Unless a great many people learn the basics of online crap detection and begin applying their critical faculties en masse and very soon, I fear for the future of the Internet as a useful source of credible news, medical advice, financial information, educational resources, scholarly and scientific research. Some critics argue that a tsunami of hogwash has already rendered the Web useless. I disagree. We are indeed inundated by online noise pollution, but the problem is soluble. The good stuff is out there if you know how to find and verify it. Basic information literacy, widely distributed, is the best protection for the knowledge commons: A sufficient portion of critical consumers among the online population can become a strong defense against the noise-death of the Internet.

The first thing we all need to know about information online is how to detect crap – a technical term I use for information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate deception. Learning to be a critical consumer of Webinfo is not rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles.

The issue of info pollution has been on my mind since at least 1994, when I wrote “The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons” about the infamous Canter and Siegel – the first Internet spammers. A few years later, I personally confronted the importance of teaching information literacy to 14 year olds when I watched my daughter come of age at the same time online search engines became available. I sat down in front of the circa-1999 computer with my daughter and explained that most of the books she could get from the library could be counted on to be factually accurate. But when you enter words into a search engine, there is no guarantee that your search will lead you to accurate information. “You have to do some investigation before you accept anything you find online,” I warned her.

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