"Fake" is, apparently, one of the most common comments left under YouTube videos.
Wikipedia is (nearly) as trustworthy as the Encyclopedia Britannica. (true)
The moon landings were shot on a soundstage (untrue)
We all know you can't believe everything you read - but when French composer Maurice Jarre died in March 2009 and the obligatory purple prose rolled around the world few would have expected that these obituaries would become a part of a bigger story that asked some interesting questions about how we validate information on the internet and what the future holds for our understanding of 'truth'.
The Jarre obituaries were spiked by an undergraduate in Dublin, Shane Fitzgerald, who, in an attempt to survey the untested reliance on wikipedia by bloggers, stuck in some anodyne, yet completely fabricated, quotes within hours of Jarre's death. They were positioned intentionally to fool lazy bloggers, and were taken down by moderators twice the day after Jarre's death - but the third time Fitzgerald's post lasted 24 hours, enough time for the too-perfect lines to be picked up, not only by bloggers but also by sources of repute in the UK: the Guardian, the Independent, and even the BBC - and all too quickly these sources were then used to retrospectively validate Fitzgerald's dodgy posting and the quotes gain complete credibility. (Being an English wiki I'm guessing the quotes had no impact on French media coverage)
Spectacularly successful in his deceit (and perhaps a little embarrassed) it took Fitzgerald three weeks to own up. The Guardian was the only one to address the fraud adequately - if slightly tetchy - the rest just shrugged and corrected the online version, the printed editions remain archived in libraries across the globe. Understandably the 'project' became a story in itself (mainly in Ireland) - yet not one flogged to death by those who had most to learn - the journalists, the bloggers, the wikipedia moderators. For example how 'true' can a wikipedia article get? At what point should historical or science articles be locked? Should biographies face a 48 hour lockdown after a subjects death? Should journalists be taught how to look at the history of a wiki entry? (which would have instantly caused doubt in this instance...) Do paid-for-copy services such as Knol actually have a genuine future? Should journalists have to cite or hyperlink sources for online material?
Or are we all too lazy, too pressured, too trusting? We are entering an age where almost every piece of information is digitised for consumption and tools exist to manipulate that information without trace. Everything is possibly fake, forged or fraudulent. I researched this whole piece online without really checking. Maybe I didn't even research it - will you check? So where do we turn then for the 'truth'? Does it just become an article of faith? To me this a question posed but not really answered because no-one is in charge - it's a conundrum for the cheerleaders of crowd-wisdom, a challenge to cash-strapped news outlets, a challenge to rationalism - but it won't be resolved.
A BBC journalist I know recently used an unsubstantiated wikipedia entry about a film stunt. He was horrified to see it become the reference point used by moderators to validate the same wiki entry. This is a slippery slope - undergraduate experiments are probably the tip of the iceberg. But who knows.