How Long Until Truthful Information Becomes Worthless?

Photo cred: Diego Sevilla Ruiz

Hypothetical situation: You trust me. I post an article somewhere. Your trust for me then translates to trust in the content I’m sharing, and so you trust that the article is credible. Then you share it, your readers trust you…rinse, and repeat.

Safe to say this happens often?

Today, credibility in content is determined by who and how many share it. As credibility becomes increasingly determined by sharability the value of the truth is driven downward.

Look at it from a basic economic perspective. As the supply of information increases, the price of information decreases. Supply is at an all time high, price is at an all time low. As the price of information decreases, the resources used to provide quality information becomes unaffordable. If consumers don’t pay for information, suppliers can’t invest any money to ensure its credibility.

Truthful information has never faced the competition it faces today. As citizen journalism grows as a primary source for information, the need for investigative journalism as a paid alternative decreases.

Bloggers do not have to write truthful content. In fact, many of the most successful (popular) blogs focus on SEO and on writing successful copy in order to drive ad revenue, product and affiliate sales. Their “success” in driving traffic then translates to credibility in the eyes of the reader. If a blogger gets a ton of traffic, they must be credible, right?

They’re writing to get more people to come to their site, with absolutely no check on honesty.

Truthful content still exists, but is often buried under google pages of the popular stuff. Even if you refused to take information at face value, and choose to dig deeper in search of the truth, chances are you won’t find it.

As you become more reliant on social networks to determine what information is worthy of reading, you play into a system that has minimal consideration for credibility.

Where honesty should reign supreme, popularity now drives authority and credibility.

How much longer until truthful information becomes completely worthless?

31 thoughts on “How Long Until Truthful Information Becomes Worthless?

  1. Love the insight David. It’s a race to the top in terms of Google, and the reason isn’t to provide relevant information, but to be ‘top of mind’ and for some of the people who are at the top of google, their content is just..well..garbage.

    Credibility always has been a sticking point with me coming from doing my PhD program. I scoured over hundreds of journal articles just to get my background research done for my thesis. Now you can read an article, pull off the relevant information, never even cite where you got it from, and pass it off as your own.

    1. That’s the thing…doing thorough research is hard work. The reliance on crowd sourced information and google driven credibility just shows how lazy we really are.

      I wonder if that’s all it is…lazyness. Perhaps today’s information moves too fast and becomes outdated quicker than ever, so the time needed to ensure credibility in information is no longer an option.

      1. Maybe because the goal is to beat the next guy, not necessarily to be the most thorough and thought out.

        The balance needs to be between speed vs timeliness v thoroughness. And everyone seems to be wavering with that trifecta.

  2. Call me an optimist, but I think we’re slowly moving away from popularity as credibility. Slowly, as we get more and more tainted information we return to more trusted sources and traditional experts. Maybe?

    Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on ad age by Ana Andjelic and afterwards followed her on Twitter. At the time I followed her, she had a marginal number of Twitter followers and popularity. After the article, she immediately gained popularity, trust and credibility.

    She had to write in a credible publication in order to become popular. Sounds like the media days of old right?

    Obviously, it can work both ways, you can look to Perez Hilton as an example of someone who leveraged popularity for credibility and authority, but I have a hunch that the sheer number of online popularity junkies have forced us back into a world where we trust those who are associated with reputable sources of information.

    What do you think?

    1. What are reputable sources of information? Even mainstream publications that have been around for a long time are turning to social platforms as a source of information.

      Soon, as people spend less and less on reputable sources of information, they’ll either have to give in and reduce the amount of resources they invest, or die.

      The perceived value of truthful information just isn’t as high as people claim. Everyone says they want honest, thorough news and reporting…but so few are ready to pay for it when the is such a great deal of moderately thorough information online.

  3. I will admit that I am guilty of tweeting something or sharing something without reading it all the way through. Sometimes I just get through the first couple paragraphs and think it’s something my followers or friends would like to read. For all I know, the remaining paragraphs are irrelevant and completely false.

    I think you are absolutely right that truth takes a back seat to sharability these days. If something is thought-provoking and likely to be passed on (RTed), am I more like to share it? You bet. Will I double and triple check that said article is 100% accurate. No way.

    Truth already doesn’t matter as much as it once did, at least in certain places. When I’m sharing something with a client or at work, you better believe I check into accuracy and relevance. So why don’t I give my followers the same? I don’t know, time? Or the fact that losing a follower for sharing an irrelevant link won’t necessarily harm my career as much as sharing something inaccurate with a client.

    Does that make any sense? I guess my point is that truth has already fallen to the wayside.

  4. A tweet that scared me last week: I tweet any content from Mashable because it’s a trusted source – even if I haven’t read it.

    WTF? Are we seriously that naive and trusting?

    I once tweeted out a link bait about PR but went to a David Hasselhoff video, just to prove a point. 20+ RTs later, no one had realized it except a few.

    I think we will see a shift in blogging as many are demanding links to research. You no longer can just write and say “Read Me!”

    You have to back it up. Those with large followings will be challenged even more so.

    1. I wonder if anyone has actually done a ‘study’ about this, seeing if what people RT is actually what they think it is. Would be interesting to see the results.

    2. I’ll admit that I’ve retweeted posts without reading them before. It’s bad, but it happens frequently. Many people set up feeds of content that automatically feeds into their twitter. Everyone wants to be a sought out source of information, and few have care for being credible.

      1. This definitely bothers me, which is why I rarely retweet anything I haven’t read first. The only time I’ve done it is when it’s someone I trust who is tweeting their own blog post on a subject I know they’re an expert on. Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned, but I want to provide my followers some value for following me.

        I know the people you’re talking about that set up the auto feeds and their sole goal is to drive traffic to their website. I think given the sheer amount of information and people out there that share information will eventually reduce the effectiveness of this ploy. This should force people to actually provide value by curating and/or creating quality/credible information to share. At least one can dream….:)

  5. I must be one of the few people who actually clicks through and reads the full post before retweeting. I’m new in the (recruiting) social media space and so in order for me to build credibility without having a blog of my own, I need to ensure that what I’m retweeting may offer some value or insight to those who are actually following me.

    1. I always try to but honestly, even when I read through posts, I don’t always read that into them. I’ll skim them, if they seem like they’ll be valuable to my followers, I might share it, with little to no clue about how credible the information is.

  6. This is such an interesting concept and idea, David!

    What about the reader, can’t honest content begin with the eye of the beholder? It’s so easy to sniff out the SEO, bullshit-type content that isn’t truthful. Everyday, while I work with blogs, I look for content that resonates with me. I might have to dig but each person goes through their own process to find that content.

    You are right, however, if I go to my Delicious or Digg, I find the most popular and they’re sites all about traffic and SEO growth. So at face value, I think there’s a lack of honesty out there – without a doubt. We have to dig deeper.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Grace.

      It can. Shameless plug to what we’re trying to do at Scribnia, to allow readers to hold online writers accountable for the things they write.

      The thing is, most people don’t understand web practices the way we do. We see it all the time. We may even practice it ourselves. To the average consumer of news and information however, their eyes aren’t trained to sniff out that kind of stuff.

      Readers have proven lately that they care less about credibility by refusing to pay for their news and information. Will they pay for NYTimes articles when they launch their new pricing plan? I don’t know. I’d learn toward many people refusing to pay and sticking to the free, unchecked alternatives.

  7. We do have to dig deeper, as Grace said. Social Media has become a popularity contest – I love it to death, but at it’s core, it’s pretty vain and everyone’s out there trying to get ahead, trying to become a “thought leader” or trusted resource, and through it all, there’s plenty of people who are putting out content for the sake of “share-ability”.

    It’s our obligation to dig deeper, to unearth the honesty out there, to filter through the noise and find the “real” content out there. And as Lauren says above, I do think we’ll see a transition, in time, to reading and writing that demands proof – that references sources instead of a lot of the “fluff” we’re seeing today.

    Good stuff man.

    1. Thanks Matt.

      I don’t know. The trend I’m seeing doesn’t look like one that will demand credibility any time soon. It’s this perception that if something is shared a lot, it must be credible. The average consumer of information online has a ridiculous amount of options today, and the only way we’ve seen to filter this information is on popularity, rather than credibility.

      The readers will demand honesty, but until they’re ready to do the work to find it, they’ll continue to read content regardless of how true it is.

  8. This is good and beneficial because as the more watered down content gets by the masses, the easier it is to distinguish the intelligent folks from the drones.

    It’s all cyclical. As supply rises, demand falls. So those with supply are forced to produce premium to drive demand back up. In the end, we all win. We just have to dig through the garbage a bit.

    1. But no one is digging. They’re doing the opposite; they’re letting automated tools and crowd-sourcing do the digging for them. There’s a difference between being intelligent and being credible. The more intelligent people often use their talents to drive money before honesty. That’s the danger.

  9. Hey David,

    This is a great post. Cannot tell you how much I empathize with you. As a student, I find this to be so widespread. I think some of us are unbelievably naive – I know when I first started using Twitter it was like I was going through the enlightenment age – “Oh wow! great points!” over and over again.

    I think the question I have is – not to get philosophical – but what is honesty? We’re all shooting in the dark about social media. Sure, we have success stories, but none of us can predict what’s going to happen. I think the thing that bothers me the most – and I’m guilty of it too – is that we’re almost running around in circles, trying to predict what the future of everything is, and it’s all fluff sometimes. It’s as if people are becoming legitmate, credible sources based on..what?

    Sorry this is such a jumbled comment, but I wanted to get a comment in before I head off to a meeting. This is a great post.

  10. I appreciate you taking the time to comment Sam and really glad it resonated with you.

    It’s true…there is a shitload of fluff out there today. This post wasn’t specific to social media bloggers but to content producers in general. Any news, any information. Honesty is conveying the truth when it’s known, and disclosing opinion as such. Fluff isn’t necessarily “dishonest” but it certainly isn’t credible.

    Is anything that I write credible? Not really… I speak from limited experience. I try to be as honest as possible and make my opinions clear. Should people be turning to me as a reliable source of information? Should any part time/recreational blogger be considered credible?

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  12. I am going to take a utilitarian perspective on this, mostly to play Devil’s Advocate but just a little bit because it’s probably “true.”

    I think people never really valued truth to begin with. What they valued was whatever bit of information that they could find that would most closely validate whatever opinions they happened to hold dear.

    When there were only three news stations to contend with, people inadvertently got some “truth” with their rhetoric because it was really, really hard not to. What the information revolution has given the world is the ability to wrap itself in the warm, creamy center of its own biases and find scads of “truth” that does little more than build on whatever pre-conceived notion they happen to be playing with.

    If you want a clear example of this, look at any debate about politics (or really any social issue). You will see people parroting talking points back and forth at each other almost word for word. Why? Because the only “truth” they allow themselves to be swayed by is coming from sources that have a huge amount of incentive to stir people up, draw in crowds, and otherwise ramp up their ad revenue through the use of sensationalism.

    My thoughts? I’d be careful saying that people intrinsically care about truth. I think we want to -believe- we care about truth, when what we really care about is feeling like we’re right.

    1. It’s true that sensationalism always existed as news outlets focus on ratings. It may also be true that people do not seek true information, but rather information that appeals to their biases. Does this make True information any less important though? The point here is that with the growth of social platforms as a source of news, these two problems are exploding to a whole new level.

      So are you saying that true information never had any value? That’s impossible. If people only sought out information that confirmed their beliefs, we’d never grow. We’d know what we know and never seek to expand beyond that. Innovation in science, education and technology would cease.

  13. Great post, I totally agree that information on the web is getting saturated with content and credibility is decreasing. The sharability factor is also something i think is flawed in a way. Google ranks sites by the sites linked to it, not by any indication of their credibility. That is why we are becoming more dependent on our social networks for credible information. I think that if search engines dont adopt the practices of reddit and digg, our social networks will become the prominant source of information, it is faster and more relevant.

      1. I think the user-based rating system would be key for google. They can have the option to show sites based on public user-based rating, or use your own contacts and networks. They already have the capabilities with social search.

  14. David:

    This is an excellent conversation to have — and to think about. How do we (personally) evaluate information and ideas? How do we filter with our own research and critical thinking?

    Every item I tweet, I have read and spent time thinking about. Every link I pass on, I have researched and thought about — is it worthy of your time?

    Ultimately, we need to choose to be thoughtful. Sometimes it may mean we sacrifice speed. Newsflash: there is no silver bullet. So there, we can slow down 🙂

    BTW – old media is in a sad state of disrepair. Stories are not checked, people are misquoted, press releases are placed in a different context… it’s all in the name of rushing to hit “publish”.

    @Matt – yep, different behavior affects change.

    @Steve — “I’d be careful saying that people intrinsically care about truth. I think we want to -believe- we care about truth, when what we really care about is feeling like we’re right.” Aside from the fact that some truths may be subjective, people by and large can’t handle the truth.

    Thank you all for the comments.

    1. Valeria, so glad you stopped by and shared your thoughts (=

      Great point about the need for quick information. The need to press publish as quickly as possible is absolutely contributing to the problem. For whatever reason, content written today tends to be considered irrelevant by tomorrow. The need to constantly churn out content in order to keep up with the beast that is today’s online reader demand, will always come at a cost to credibility.

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