Trust and the Internet

Last week a famous Brazilian journalist received in his email box a study, supposedly supported by the NASA, claiming that the planet Mars was about to come very close to Earth, and that this represented a phenomenon that occurred only once every 70,000 years or so.

Considering the study to be a scoop, the journalist announced the event on his daily column inside one of the most popular Brazilian radio stations, only to find out a couple of hours later that the whole deal was nothing more than a prank (by the time it was all over the place).

The following day he apologized publicly, confessing that it was the “biggest prank he ever received.”

So far so good, we are all susceptible to such mistakes. The curious thing came right after, though, when he was drawing some conclusions. According to the journalist the message was clear: “do not trust the Internet.”

Well, personally I think that his attack to the Internet was both precipitated and poorly structured.

First of all it amuses me that he decided to report on something that he received via email, from someone that he did not know, without even cross-checking the information.

The Internet is certainly revolutionizing the access to content creation and distribution, but that does mean that there are no rules whatsoever. The most used argument is that anyone can write anything on the Internet. That is true, but there is a self-regulating mechanism in place that separates what is good and reliable for what is not.

A 14-year-old boy in Singapore could wake up one day with the desire to write some “fantastic” astronomical events. He could claim to be someone else, like a scientist working for an American university, and he could even publish it on his website and put a fake NASA logo there.

Some people could end up reading it and believing it, but would it go very far? I sincerely doubt it. Just think about the very nature of search engines. They use complex search algorithms that evaluate the relevance and accuracy of each page based, among other factors, on how many websites are linking to that page. Each link is considered as a vote of confidence.

Now, back to our example, how many websites do you think would be linking to the fake astronomical study created by the little boy? Not many, and definitely not trusted ones.

This natural mechanism would make that when someone search for “astronomical phenomenon” in Google he would not find the page from our Singaporean friend but rather pages and sites that have been considered reliable and relevant.

It is easy to write crap on the Internet, that is beyond discussion. But is it equally easy to make said crap highly visible and influential? Hardly. You can’t fool over one billion of Internet users.