‘Virtual Unreality’ chronicles dangers of digital deception

Lies and misinformation on the Internet harm the real world, journalist argues

Virtual Unreality
Charles Seife
Viking Press, $26.95 

Reality and the virtual world “can no longer be completely disentangled,” argues Seife. A science journalism professor at New York University, he documents how this entanglement is altering what we know — or think we know. It’s an unsettling read, all the more because he gives concrete examples of how unscrupulous people can exert undue influence on the public, politics and the economy.

The Internet makes it easy to hide an author’s identity. It can also mask the source of information presented as fact. Take Wikipedia and its crowdsourced “knowledge.” Wikipedia attempts to shield the sources of its entries. Yet one New Yorker investigation turned up a 24-year-old who wrote or edited 16,000 Wikipedia entries — but lacked the credentials and expertise he had claimed. Wikipedia’s founder seemed unconcerned when confronted with this information. Concludes Seife: “Loyalty and hard work for Wikipedia earn one an authority that transcends anything that mere subject-matter expertise can give you.” Bottom line: User beware.

Another new role of the Internet is the global soapbox. For the first time in history, the voice of a few can move across the world at the speed of light and at virtually no cost. This certainly democratizes speech. But if that speech is hateful or dangerously uninformed, Seife argues, it risks becoming a virtual “virus” that infects “a dispersed but digitally interconnected group.”

That information, like so much else on the Web, is free. Seife warns we often get what we pay for. Too often, he notes, news outlets parrot (some might say loosely plagiarize) the posts of others because original reporting is slow and expensive. And online news sites now tailor much of what they cover for search engines — not people. It’s those algorithms, after all, that decide what pages top our search lists. The Internet has begun “changing what news is” and devaluing quality throughout the media industry, Seife suggests.

His book is not an indictment of digital technology. Society reaps tremendous benefits from it. But the digital landscape is evolving so quickly that few of us fully appreciate our vulnerability to being snookered. Seife’s mission is to open our eyes to how the superpowers of the Internet can be misused. By pointing to signs of digital shenanigans, he shows us how to try and avoid them. 

Buy the hardcover or Kindle edition of this book from Amazon.com. Sales generated through the links to Amazon.com contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs. 

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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