The Web is a master tool for deception. The network is connected and alive, so rumors, tilted truths and outright lies can be spread worldwide in days, hours and sometimes minutes. The sources of stories, or sometimes just who spins and reassembles them, can be completely anonymous — making accreditation and accountability impossible.
Deceit: Claims that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. (demonstrably false); an email from a friend saying “you’ll just love this link” (not really from your friend, and a source of malware); a one-sided article in Wikipedia with a twisted view of history (anyone can post, and the more obscure it is, the less likely it has been reviewed); propaganda posing as education; a request from your bank to update your profile at a site the looks real (phishing).
Bad things happen all the time because of this. A clever, well-timed lie can swing an election. Your system can become part of a botnet or your identity can be stolen. A million kids can view a video in school this is full of errors and misdirection. And the biggest damage of all from all these transgressions and dirty tricks is the loss of trust in people, institutions and our own abilities to discover and understand truth.
The best defense is critical thinking skills. Knowing about unfair rhetorical tricks and how to test credibility — through theory, stories and practice — can provide protection against many of the deceptions that come at you at the speed of a keystroke. Snopes.com is an excellent source of critiques of fast-flying rumors and embedded urban myths. The counterarguments are valuable for specific stories, but they also help to reinforce careful thinking. I’ve also found that, for position papers and videos, searching “Critique of (title)” can provide a wealth of perspectives and facts worth considering.
Help is around to build defenses against malware and scams, too. Some, like antivirus software, testing software, patches and firewalls can be automated and should part of the toolbox of anyone who connects to the Web. There are also sites that provide advice on closing ports, changing social network options and creating passwords that are safer. Ultimately, just as critical thinking skills provide a habit of mind that is protective, learning to think like a hacker can help to keep you out of trouble. Reading tales of hackers helps. In some respects, developing a touch of paranoia about online activities, without hobbling yourself, might be worthwhile.
None of us lives in a small town anymore. Like a big city, the network world offers much, with access to people, knowledge and opportunity. But it also has its scoundrels and seedy neighborhoods. Vigilance is called for in terms of using helpful tools, following safe practices and finding the right level of skepticism.