The “University of Google”

originally posted January 14, 2008
May 2021: reformatted; text revised as noted

An interesting article appeared just this morning in The Economic Times—interesting and particularly appropriate for the primary election season that is evolving here in the States, as well as for writers in general. In the article, “Google, Wikipedia are white bread for young minds,” the author raises attention to a trend that is also increasingly appearing in the business of editing: “Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing, and fleeting commitments.”

The quote comes from Tara Brabazon, a professor of eighteen years at the University of Brighton. While not slamming Google, or Wikipedia, she does draw attention to a trend of individuals taking everything they read at face value, without questioning or performing additional research to justify accuracy or authenticity. She also addresses the additional concern that easy access to information has dulled our senses of curiosity; but that’s another story for another day.

So, how does this trend relate to the primary election season?  Well, just in the past few days, I’ve received forwarded e-mails and spam that are total fabrications and intentional lies that question the background and integrity of specific candidates—and the messages are perfect examples of the problems with poor research. Their content is created and circulated to mislead readers and fuel the rumor mills that surround candidates. One of the e-mails went so far as to cite (an urban legends and rumor mill investigation Web site) in support of its claim; however, if a reader had taken the time to check even that one reference, he or she would have discovered that Snopes says the exact opposite. Further investigation would have revealed the true facts at other websites.  But, why bother to do that extra work?  The information is on the Internet, so it must be true, right?  In that case, let’s forward it to another round of readers!  Are you questioning that mentality along with me?

Moving on, then, how does the trend relate to the business of editing? Well, because authors are growing increasingly lethargic in checking their facts, as evidenced above. Granted, it is the job of an editor to fact-check and verify information; but if an entire story line is rooted in bad research, I can’t do much to help. It’s back to the drawing board for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a staunch supporter of Wikipedia, but as a starting point and a source for potential references—not as my primary documentation. And, I probably use DogPile and the Internet to research more than the average person does. But, over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to questioning practically any source of information. Even in the print world, an author has the right to insert his or her own interpretation of the facts, and nearly any research process allows the possibility of a mistake being introduced—so any information has the potential to be “tainted” or wrong and should be verified in additional sources. (Yes, even Britannica online or the Oxford resources!)

Which brings us back to Professor Brabazon’s suggestion that no source or resource should be taken at face value. The lesson is to reference Wikipedia and Google (or Dogpile) to your heart’s content; but, then, verify the facts and make sure you’ve done your homework before you cite anything as gospel truth.

Thank you; the soapbox is closed for today!

UPDATE:  More than thirteen years and several election cycles later, is it not stunning how we’re fighting this same fight? At least, maybe, that means it won’t get worse? Fingers crossed . . .

image information: Featured image, via QlikTech International AB, “The Power of Misinformation,” by Joe DosSantos, first posted March 17, 2021; click here for a larger image.