My Internet Adventure
I honestly believe that the Wikipedia is one of the treasures of the Internet, but it's not a completely dependable source of information. Most of us know this in theory, but I think it's easier to simply cede ultimate authority to some written or broadcasted source. Legend has it that the Guinness Book of World Records was created to settle bar bets. You met, you insisted something was true, someone pulled out a copy of the book and you just assumed that the world's fattest man, etc. is the guy identified in its pages. Hardly anyone ever asks what the Guinness Book people did to make sure they were right. They don't go from town to town across the world with a truck scale. They don't send out surveys to millions of people, "Who's the biggest person you ever met?"
About a week ago, I started writing for the blog about the similarities between the Phillipine Insurrection of 1898 and our current occupation of Iraq. I learned two interesting things. First, because the war happened while Mckinley was president, I assumed that Mark Hanna, his pro-business political strategist who was the beta version of Karl Rove, had helped to orchestrate the war. Further research indicated that Hanna actually opposed the war. Rove studied and admired Hanna. It simply made sense that Rove's use of Iraq must have been pulled from his study of Hanna. It just didn't happen to be true. In that war, Theodore Roosevelt was the hawk and Hanna the "Isolationist." It was this Blogkeeper's first reminder that you shouldn't believe every "fact" repeated in a blog, even my own. Many of us really are just some guy who looks things up on the net and possibly double checks it in a book. In this case, it appeared to fit so well, I simply made an unwarranted assumption before I took the time to hunt down a more detailed version of Hanna's career.
When I looked Hanna up on the Wikipedia, an internet "open source" encyclopedia, I was very surprised to learn that Hanna had served in the Civil War and according to the Wikipedia, last week, had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1895 for his service during that war. "Wow," I thought, "This guy was no chickenhawk neo-con."
I looked up a handful of other Hanna biographies on the net. About four of them contained the same bit about the Congressional Medal of Honor. Each looked suspiciously like the Wikipedia article. One problem with HTML is clearly that it's much to easy to cut and paste. Two things bothered me though. First, the original Wikipedia said that his service in the Civil War was very "brief". Second, I wondered why would a prominent Republican political advisor be given the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1895, thirty years after the war and with a Democrat in the White House. If he won the thing, why didn't any of these sources say what he did to win the highest military honor an American can receive?
I did a little more searching on the net to see if I could find a list of Medal of Honor winners. Via Yahoo search, I turned up http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-a/awl/bclass/wlm/Marcus.htm
a story about a lighthouse keeper in Maine, named Mark Hanna who also won the Medal of Honor in 1895 for his service in the Civil War. There were at least two Marcus Hannas who served in the Civil War. The other was a quartermaster from Ohio who went on to advise a future president.
I sent a note to Wikipedia and much to my surprise they changed their entry to reflect the information that I'd found elsewhere on the Internet, which I suppose makes me an actual "Wiki". That's the good news.
At the same time, I am thinking about the ways the Net is playing an increasingly prominent role in everyday life as a de facto source of authoritative information, a Guiness Book of World Records on electronic steroids. In the last presidential election, both candidate's military records became a swift
source of controvery. Many complained that mass media was somewhat AWOL with respect to getting out accurate information about either. There are some fascinating sources of information on the Internet. You can get copies of speeches, the text of every bill a major politician has ever endorsed, voted on, written, etc. Still, the sad truth is that the Internet probably served as much as a source of disinformation about both stories as it did to confirm any facts. Making matters worse, military records happen to be one of the best kept types of documentation, apparently because they need to get pension information right. 102 years after he died, the Internet promoted Mark Hanna from a quartermaster who went into business into a Medal of Honor Winner. At least five other sites simply copied and repeated the information. How much of that goes on with contemporary political blogs? How much happened in Swift Boat vs. National Guard?
The Greeks looked to the Delphic Oracle. A significant portion of the modern world believes that either the Bible or the Koran contain answers to all significant questions. Unwittingly, we have begun to trust a secular oracle, the World Wide Web in combination with the Google Search Engine. We know very little about how information gets to either one, yet it's becoming a kind of collective consciousness/unconscious.
As we grow more dependent on this ever changing Gaia like promise, we should be thinking about the dangers. Consider the possibility of "information" terrorism. How hard would it be to manipulate common sources on the Internet? WMD could appear in Iraq. The Holocaust could disappear. The President's national guard records could change. A political strategist could be given the Medal of Honor. It might be as easy as getting a hundred different bloggers to repeat something enough times and it then appears at the top of a Google Search. If the Net is going to be our collective folk memory, shouldn't we be thinking about ways to maintain its integrity?
Should we be teaching kids to be "critical" net users rather than just consumers?
Something like the Wikipedia takes pains to continually augment and edit what it posts, a kind of truth by recursion approach. In the meantime, I honestly believe that various individuals have found more techniques to distort rather than uncover the truth as it appears on the Internet, while most internet users become less and less critical of what they find there.
So, let this be your warning. Be careful about any assertions of fact that appear in mine or any other blog.
Chancelucky: The Phillipines (1898) Iraq (2003)