When Congress ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, I don’t think they had the Internet in mind.
Insightful as James Madison and company were, they could never have foreseen just how free speech would become – that every citizen would someday have the power of the pen and the means to publish anything and everything.
As critical as a free press was to America’s founding – as necessary as it still is for a free society and a free economy – we now have an entirely new problem: information anarchy. It’s not just too much information; it’s the quality and the accountability that’s gone to hell.
In the brave new world of Web 2.0 where social media and user-generated content reign supreme, the goal is not to win the hearts and minds of the people, but to capture their eyeballs and wallets. Which means that, in today’s 24/7 sound-bite-centric media world, popularity trumps quality of information any day of the week.
So what’s wrong with that? After all, we live in a democratic society. We vote for our political leaders, why not vote for our information? If we like it, it becomes popular doctrine, accuracy be damned. Isn’t that what the founding fathers wanted?
Not exactly. It’s one thing to entrust the future of our nation to the will of a well-informed, thoughtful, and engaged populace. But when we the people are misinformed, oblivious, and disengaged from what’s really going on, that’s another matter entirely.
The problem, as I see it, comes down to three factors:
First, the lines between media channels and types of content have become blurred. We no longer know the difference between news, opinion, entertainment, and paid content. Regardless of the source, once it’s posted on Facebook (FB), LinkedIn (LNKD), or Twitter (TWTR), it’s all the same. And if we think it will get us more friends and followers we share it, post it, tweet it, re-tweet it, rinse and repeat.
Second, standards for accuracy and integrity have all but disappeared. I can still remember the first time I read an article that made completely false statements as if they were fact and backed them up with misinterpreted nonscientific studies and hyperlinks that went nowhere. I was appalled but nobody else seemed to notice. That was years ago. Today that’s the norm. By the way, that article is still there – on a mainstream media site, no less.
Which brings us to the third factor. Everyone’s so distracted by all the content and apps that nobody has the time or the inclination to verify or think about what they read anymore. Americans now spend an average of five hours a day online in addition to five hours a day watching television. Our eyeballs are engaged. I’m sure parts of our brains are probably lit up like Christmas trees … just not the critical thinking parts.
So what happens to a society that’s too saturated with popular misinformation, sensationalism, consumerism, pseudoscience, myths, fads, and other assorted nonsense to care about the quality of the content they consume? Some pretty serious consequences, as it turns out.
For example, Gen Y was supposed to be the entrepreneurial generation. At least that was the hype. In reality, many Millennials that call themselves entrepreneurs and CEOs are often unemployed or underemployed, sitting home in their PJs writing content and code for peanuts. Why? Because that’s what the popular entrepreneurial drumbeat tells them they should be doing.
Our insatiable appetite for consuming information seems to be matched only by our ever-increasing consumption of calories. Judging by all the content on the subject, you would think that we’re more concerned about food, nutrition, diet, and exercise than ever before. And yet the obesity rates just keep going up and up. We’re actually starting to see life-spans decline among certain demographics.
Fear-mongering politicians capitalize on crises to push political agendas, grow their domains, pass bad legislation, overspend, and over-regulate small businesses and companies. And now we have an energy policy that’s actually hurting our sluggish economy instead of helping it and an Affordable Care Act that nobody can afford. Sadly, there’s no accountability for all the lies that got us here.
And of course, we have an ever-growing media apparatus and blogosphere that is all-too-willing to play to the lowest common denominator to monetize as big an audience as possible and capture those precious advertising dollars. And like the media-addicted news junkies we are, we consume every bit of it and beg for more.
Why am I not surprised any of this is happening? I mean, who would have thought we’d all consume so much junk food and get so much junk mail? And yet, here we are with strip malls and inboxes full of the junk. I doubt if junk news will bring about the fall of civilization anytime soon, but it’s definitely another nail in the coffin, that’s for sure.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.