Every Click a Lie
One of the first truisms or dogmas or whatever to emerge from Web culture was "don't believe everything you read online." I think the phrase was especially popular in the late 1990s, when all those WebMD-ish sites were posting medical information. Understandably, pundits urged us not to substitute a trip to Doctor.com for a trip to the real-life doctor.
But not believing what you see online has a more general meaning, too, especially now that you can access news and other allegedly factual information on the Internet. Reading the paper online reminds one that the medium of Web-based communications isn't particularly prone to propaganda and lies. All communication is: everything from front-page stories in the New York Times to enthusiastic widget descriptions on eBay are touched by human subjectivity, and therefore nothing can ever truly be propaganda-free.
Knowing this, I try to get my news from sources I trust, as well as from the usual big names in the corporate entertainment-news complex. Although I think of myself as open-minded, obviously I'm not.
Case in point: I read a post on a trusted Web site the other day in which the author noted that the end-user license agreement (EULA) for Microsoft's Web-authoring program FrontPage included phraseology to the effect that the product could not be used to create Web sites that criticized Microsoft or included hate speech or pornography. I was heatedly retelling this bit of news to Charles over dinner in a restaurant when an extremely conservative-looking fellow in a preppy outfit glanced at us and started laughing. "I couldn't help but overhear you, and that information is total bullshit," he said. It turned out that this guy worked in Microsoft's licensing department. "There's no way we would ever put that kind of restriction into our EULA. First of all, it couldn't be enforced. And second of all, we don't care what you do with Microsoft's products, as long as you pay for them."
I told him that I'd gotten my information from a very reliable source. "Don't believe everything you read, especially on ZDNet, because they hate us," he advised, adding randomly, "you know, we really don't even care if you steal things from us, as long as it's under $500,000 worth. If it's less than that, well, it's just not worth our time." Then he and his companion smiled at us and paid their bill.
Turned out later that the information I'd gotten was indeed wrong. The person had posted language from the EULA related to the FrontPage logo, not the FrontPage product itself. Shockingly, a scary Microsoft lawyer was telling me the truth. I hope he was telling the truth about that $500,000 thing, too. Not that I would ever pirate software. Nope, not me.
Jean-Luc Godard once said about movies that "every edit is a lie." When you edit a story, you destroy continuity or context in order to make things come out more smoothly, or more to your liking. The brilliant theorist Kaja Silverman refers to the process of editing film as "suturing" to emphasize the way each edit, each change, is a wound. Ultimately, the wound is in the viewer, whose belief in the edited film destroys her perspective.
Now, more than ever, I'm thinking about my wounds as I click between newspaper stories, Web stories, TV shows (yes, I watch Star Trek online, don't you?), and e-mail lists, obsessively on the alert for any signs of propaganda. El Destino forwarded me a story about some Taliban types who staged a public whipping of a couple caught having sex out of wedlock in Afghanistan. I wondered about it. Was this wartime propaganda? If taken out of context, how would some of our more barbaric activities (think Jerry Springer) look to an outsider?
Jesse pointed me to a story in New Scientist about some U. Michigan researchers who invented a tool that scans for steganographic data hidden in hundreds of thousands of images online. Apparently they found none. Could this disprove USA Today's stories about terrorists communicating steganographically online? Or was it just reverse propaganda, intended to poke holes in some of the assumptions under-pinning the civil liberties horror known as the Anti-Terrorist Act of 2001?
The main difference between propaganda and legitimate information is that propaganda pretends to be objective truth. I only trust information sources who admit up front that they have an agenda, they're the ones who show you where the edits are, rather than wounding you with cuts that can tell you more than the story itself does.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who begs forgiveness from all Lacanian scholars for her bastardized version of suture theory. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.