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Bad News

In this age of instant communication, word spreads in a heartbeat. Problem is, much of the information is inaccurate. Think Richard Jewell. The report that a Navy missile shot down TWA Flight 800. Air bags and the Mars rock (maybe).

December 31, 1996|JOEL ACHENBACH | WASHINGTON POST

The Information Age has one nagging problem: Much of the information is not true. We live in a time besotted with Bad Information.

It's everywhere. It's on the street, traveling by word-of-mouth. It's lurking in dark recesses of the Internet. It's in the newspaper. It's at your dinner table, passed along as known fact, irrefutable evidence, attributed to unnamed scientists, statisticians, "studies."

There has always been Bad Information in our society, but it moves faster now, via new technologies and a new generation of information manipulators. The supply of Bad Information is not the only problem: There may also be a rise in demand. Perhaps as a social species we have developed a greater tolerance for it as we desperately try to slake our thirst for intrigue, excitement and mind-tweaking factoids. The plausible has been squeezed out of public discourse by the incredible.

There are several fundamental types of Bad Information.

* Obvious but Wrong Information: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution breaks the news that Richard Jewell was the prime suspect in the Olympic bombing. Jewell was obviously the perpetrator because he had been the "hero" who found the bomb, and we all know that a "hero" is usually a self-promoting, bogus individual, if not an outright killer. Also, the information was leaked, and leaked information always sounds true. Unfortunately, the FBI had no evidence, just a hunch. The government eventually sent Jewell a note telling him he wasn't a suspect anymore. Whatever.

* Information Censored for Your Own Good: Americans made sure to buy cars with air bags, preferably on both the driver's and passenger's sides. Then we learned that air bags can kill small children. The experts knew of the danger and kept it quiet because they thought it would create public panic and lead people not to use air bags and thus die in greater numbers. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are thinking of the dozens of times they have let their kids ride up front. As a rule, when one piece of Good Information goes unknown, it means another piece of Information will turn Bad.

* Accurate but Untrue Information: The San Jose Mercury News' three-part series "Dark Alliance" unveiled information about a connection between the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua and crack dealers in inner city Los Angeles. The paper then implied that the crack epidemic in urban America is a CIA plot.

* Diagnostic Information: You are terribly lethargic and you go see a succession of mental health professionals. One says you are depressed, another says you are not depressed but have chronic fatigue syndrome, another says there is no such thing as chronic fatigue syndrome, another says you have multiple personalities because in your childhood your mother was a member of a satanic cult. You say you don't remember your mother being a member of a satanic cult, and the therapist says that's a dead giveaway.

* Statistical Information: A sociologist in 1985 reported that under California's no-fault divorce system, women suffered a 73% drop in their standard of living in the first year after getting a divorce, while men's standard of living improved 42%. The sociologist subsequently admitted that her numbers were wrong, the gap grossly inflated.

And finally:

* Historical Information: Everyone knows that Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake!" Except she didn't. A fictional character said it.

The most subtle but poisonous effect of Bad Information is the decline of intelligent conversation. It used to be that you couldn't talk about religion and politics, but now you can't talk about religion, politics, UFOs, phonics, nutrition, the Kennedy assassination, O.J. Simpson, Shakespeare's true identity, proper child-rearing techniques, the significance of birth order or whether power lines give you cancer.

This is why Michael Jordan is so popular: He's the only thing we all agree on. Man, that guy can play ball!

*

Bad Information is insidious because it looks so much like Good Information. It takes an extremely practiced eye to spear Good from the thick bog of Bad.

"It's harder to tell the difference between good-quality and bad-quality information than it is between a good-quality and a bad-quality shirt. Your mom can teach you how to look at the stitching on a shirt," says Phil Agre, a communications professor at UC San Diego.

Bad Information does not happen by accident. It is promulgated. The sources are increasingly sophisticated. Today, almost everyone has advanced technology for disseminating data, from Web sites to phone banks to cable TV infomercials; everyone has a private public relations staff and a private media relations staff and a private Scientific Advisory Panel to lend "expert" authority to implausible assertions.

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