Just because we conduct so much of our lives on the internet these days doesn't mean we have to trust it — and according to an extensive new study, 52 percent of Americans don't.
For its "Onward Internet" project, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association teamed up with Google Consumer Surveys to reach some telling conclusions on how Americans view the internet. Most notable is the fact that this survey polled 100,000 people — and counting, since you can still "take the quiz" yourself, if you like.
When asked what one thing they would most like to change about the internet, 52 percent of respondents said that they'd want it to be "more trustworthy."
Even as people depend more and more on the internet, they're still wary of it
Though the study is still ongoing, this initial 52 percent figure easily dwarfs the other responses. After "more trustworthy," the closest contender is "more intelligent," which came in at just 13 percent.
Sure, the internet is a vast source of information, the likes of which would have seemed unfathomable even a single generation ago. You can wonder what the land mass of Tasmania is one second, and then find out it's 35,042 square miles the next. But by the same token, the internet contains so much information that it's sometimes difficult to parse what's truth and what's fiction.
Hoaxes fly around the web at lightning speed, and by the time someone calls them out as false, they've already made their way into countless minds. Sometimes, internet hoaxes are relatively harmless, like, say, the ongoing "this is the day Doc and Marty went back to the future" hoax. But as more people turn to the internet for news, and perhaps see something in passing on their Facebook feed that appeals, the low priority of fact checking becomes much more of a pressing issue.
...for a picture or video to go viral, people would forward it to each other by email, and it took weeks for it to build up. There'd be plenty of lead time to try and figure out where it came from, and whether it was real.
Now, it's much more ephemeral; things come and go so quickly. People post a funny video on Facebook, and 20 minutes later it's a headline in the New York Post or something. There's much less time to identify them and write about them.
While Mikkelson doesn't believe that people are more gullible now that they have the internet, he does believe that the technology makes it easier to disseminate lies — and it's an uphill battle to put out the fire once it's started.
Just ask the guy who accidentally started the aforementioned Back to the Future hoax in 2010. Daniel Dalton, then a digital production editor at Total Film, almost immediately knew he'd messed up by tweeting everyone a "happy Back to the Future day," but it didn't matter. The idea was out there, and it spread far beyond his control.
In a great, frank essay for BuzzFeed, published October 21 — the real Back to the Future Day — Dalton recalled how he accidentally made the situation even worse by photoshopping the time machine's dashboard to read the date he'd pegged as The Day.
Despite tweeting the photoshop job with "we were wrong," the joke photo was taken out of context and shared countless times as fact. "That picture," writes Dalton in wonderment, "was like drinking rocket fuel and pissing on a wildfire. Nobody reads on the internet, but boy, do they love pictures."
Mikkelson attributes the problem of internet fraud to the fact that, ultimately, believing in hoaxes is so much more fun than learning they're wrong. "Debunkings never keep pace with the original false items," he told io9, "because the corrections aren't nearly as interesting."
People are still turning to the internet more and more for support
Despite this show of distrust, the NCTA survey still revealed that more people lean on the internet than mistrust it: 57 percent of respondents admitted to turning to the Internet for support. Further, only 13 percent total admitted to feeling intimidated by the internet, as a whole.
So while the NCTA's findings are interesting, especially thanks to the enormous scope of survey respondents, it's important to note that this confusing cocktail of mistrust, confusion, dependence, and fondness has defined the internet from its beginnings. For every hoax, splashy or otherwise, there is a support community connecting people who could not otherwise meet. The Internet plays host to fear, ugliness, and ruthless behavior in some corners, even as it sheds light, forges bonds, and breathes life into fledgling ideas in others.
Basically: All the world's a contradictory mess, and the internet is no exception.