|Column: The end of the world|
Friday, 18 March 2011 09:13
Wild doomsday predictions hailed as fact, journalists citing Wikipedia as truth, the end is clearly nigh.
The world was supposed to end on Tuesday.
I just thought you should know.
Apparently, there was supposed to be this huge magnetic shift of the Earth's poles (so that south was north, and north was south), caused by this gigantic comet called Elenin (otherwise known as the mystical planet Nemesis, or was that the mythical planet of doom Nibiru?)
Anyway, this was supposed to cause great cosmic radiation to come from the Earth which, alongside the current 'supermoon' (the moon being closer to us than ever before), would upset our tectonic plates and cause a 'supervolcano' to erupt in the middle of the US, destroying the world as we know it.
Where did I get this information?
I read all about it online!
Okay, so maybe the so-called supermoon isn't that amazing and actually happens on the 19th, and perhaps the planet Nibiru and a comet are slightly different in size and shape, and perhaps our poles always shift a little bit and this is perfectly normal, but you can see how it all fits together can't you?
A number of people on YouTube could, and judging by the number of blog posts and forum threads that quoted big numbers and linked to diagrams explaining why it was perfectly logical to go and hide under the bed, a number of others could too.
Conspiracy theorists are known to come up with 'the end is nigh' predictions every few years, and they are willing to go to the ends of the Earth (quite literally) to sell survival packs and books with scary titles explaining just what you need to do in order to survive, either in post-apocolyptica or into the next life.
Most of us laugh at them and scoff into our newspapers. Especially if they have goggly eyes and greasy hair.
Yet, when it comes to the Internet, it's our first port of call for information. I'll be the first to admit that 'google' has become my favourite verb (with apologies to those who paid the very expensive legal fees that got it removed from the dictionary).
But just because someone wrote it and made it sound convincing - throwing in sources with PhDs and quotes from mystics - doesn't make it any more true. There is a reason that Wikipedia is banned as a reference source from most schools and universities.
While it can be argued that Wikipedia is what they call 'peer-reviewed' - meaning enough eyes watch every article to catch any obvious blunders - the fact that anyone can contribute makes it a risky source if you're looking for cold, hard, facts. You can't tell when the last idiot strolled past and decided to press 'edit'.
I remember an urban legend that circulated around my campus that claimed a professor had logged onto Wikipedia the night before a big essay was due and changed facts on one of the relevant articles.
He was apparently much amused when his own made up words got handed back to him the next morning. In a more factual (because after all this is what we're discussing here) account, a few years ago a Dublin university student, Shane Fitzgerald, decided it would be a fun prank to post a poetic but fictional quote by a famous composer on Wikipedia moments after the composer's death and see what happened. He was richly rewarded when major newspapers worldwide included it in the composer's obituary.
"I didn't expect it to go that far. I expected it to be in blogs and sites, but on mainstream quality papers? I was very surprised," he said when he was interviewed about it later, noting that said papers only noticed the blunder when he wrote to them weeks later.
Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia that is moderated. If such false information can spread over Wikipedia, imagine what can be spread by blogs where there are absolutely no checks and balances. Imagine what can be spread by social media.
In the information age, you can't not do research online. I do not for a second feel that journalists should be banned from the convenience either. But it terrifies me how easily people are willing to accept what they read online, posted by individuals no wiser than themselves, as fact.
Perhaps that is the real end of the world as we know it: when there is no line between fact and fiction, between truth and fantasy. It's a sobering thought.
(Just in case you're wondering, the next time the world is going to end is on 21 May, so set your alarm and don't bother to take out the trash).
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