Internet A Useful Tool, But Some Sites More Credible
In recent weeks, two of my regular letter-writers have stopped sending me mail. They haven't stopped submitting letters -- they've gotten computers and are online for the first time. Both are senior citizens.
One received an iPad from his children. He loves it.
The other got his first desktop computer. He's had some questions, and I've tried to help answer them. He was worried about the safety of the Internet -- as well he should be.
I'm not just talking about viruses and malware. I'm also talking about the reliability of the information available online.
First, about malicious software sneaking around on the Internet -- most computers come with anti-virus programs installed. They're often free at first, and then they charge a fee. Those programs really are worth the money, although there also are "open source" (free) anti-virus programs you can download as well. Both the commercial programs and the free ones will monitor threats posed by unscrupulous websites and dangerous e-mail messages.
The most basic rule is not to open attachments from sources you don't know and trust. And even then, be careful.
There's also something called spyware. If it sneaks onto your computer, it will collect little bits of information about you, and send it to people you don't want knowing these things. It can also send you advertisements and annoying "pop-ups."
The iPad, however, is (so far) immune to most of these threats, so it's actually a great choice for an older person who has never used a computer before. Be warned, however, that hackers are undoubtedly working to find its vulnerabilities, and protective software could soon be needed for these as well.
But those are only the technological dangers of the Internet. There are others -- such as false information, misguided reasoning and the subtler danger of narrowing one's political worldview.
Politics are inseparable from the Internet. There are basic principles to remember as you use the vast online resources to learn more about -- and even become active -- in the great political questions of our day.
The first thing to realize about the Internet is that anyone can say anything -- and they do. Websites, blogs, comment sections on news sites, and message boards are filled with people expressing themselves. And because they can do so anonymously most of the time, they are far less guarded with the opinions (and their claims) than they might be in person. When reading these opinions, be careful of the "facts" presented and the claims being made. With great anonymity comes great license to lie.
Many websites are dedicated to a single ideological viewpoint. Two examples, on the left and the right, include moveon.org and townhall.com, respectively. It's hard to tell those sites are even talking about the same nation at times. In the past week, MoveOn has railed about the "myths" regarding Social Security (such as the "myth" it's going broke), while Townhall had pieces about the desperate state of the entitlement and the possible need to privatize it.
Neither site is an actual news site -- the online face of a real, live newsgathering organization. Mostly, they're outlets for commentary (opinion). Be careful of the claims being made. If something comes from a columnist you trust, great. But check a writer's credentials and facts before sending me a letter about the latest atrocity of the Obama administration or the Republicans.
Then there are the news aggregators. That's what the well-known Drudge Report is (drudgereport.com). Again, it's not a news site itself -- it collects news, particularly news of interest to conservative readers, and then posts links (which take you to the website of original publishers of the articles). Very, very rarely, Matt Drudge will write an article himself based on an insider tip. But for the most part, Drudge and other aggregators (such as Google News) simply link to the labor of others. Their reliability is based solely on the reliability of the source.
Actual news sites are more rare, but more reliable. These are the websites of newspapers, television networks and stations, and some (few) online-only news publications, such as the Texas Tribune (texastribune.org). These sites employ professional journalists who actually go out and cover the news. They usually have an opinion section, but it will be clearly delineated and separate from the news side.
Of course, we can debate the ideological leanings of foxnews.com and msnbc.com, but that's not the point of this column. What I want to stress is that the Internet is a mixed blessing.
One of the subtler dangers of the Internet is a narrowing of a user's worldview and understanding. It's easy to find justification for your own opinions and visit only websites you know you'll agree with. That's the habit many of us fall into.
But it carries the risk of losing sight of the real debate. The arguments made by the other side are often twisted, dismissed, or made into straw men (easier to defeat, because they're not the real thing). I challenge myself to read the writers I disagree with -- not just the writers who support my own positions. My beliefs and reasoning should be strong enough to withstand the challenge of reading the opposition.
A final note for those new to the Internet: almost inevitably, you'll find yourself on the e-mail list of an incessant forwarder. You'll receive daily (or more than daily) bits of wisdom, jokes, inspirational thoughts and cute pictures of cats.
Please don't send them on to me.
Roy Maynard is editorial page editor of the Tyler Courier-Times--Telegraph.