COLUMN: Uninformed in an age of information

Searching for keywords is useful, but it is no substitute for reading the article

We live in an information age, but despite the wealth of information available to us, it’s still possible to be uninformed.

I realized this the other day when I received a request relating to an article on the Summerland Review’s website.

“My team actually just published a comprehensive article on 20 DIY Macrame Plant Hanger Patterns which I think your visitors would truly appreciate and add value to your awesome article,” the message read.

That’s odd. I couldn’t remember running any recent stories, photos, letters or columns about plant hangers.

Maybe the piece had run in another publication. Nope. There was a link to an article which appeared on our site in late January, but it wasn’t a review about macrame plant hanger patterns.

Our website includes Canadian Press stories which do not appear in the print edition of the paper. This was one such story.

The headline read, “Alleged Toronto serial killer buried dismembered victims’ remains in planter boxes: Cops.” Why would anyone think this article would be an appropriate link to a story about macrame patterns?

This isn’t the first time I’ve received an odd request from someone seeking to have an article published.

Earlier this year, I received a message asking if we would run a piece on the 10 best hunting crossbows.

“Just thought I’d point you to an article that perfectly backs up your stand and adds some value,” the request read.

The news story in our paper and online was a short police report about a break-in at a Summerland home. A vehicle and some firearms and crossbows were stolen.

Both these requests were the result of bots — automated searches which triggered automated messages.

All it took was a quick word search to find publications which had run stories mentioning planters or crossbows. Then, the message was sent out.

The same thing happens too often in the comments following online news stories, especially stories about national or international politics or other hot-button issues. Some of the responses have nothing to do with the content of the article. The comments section then becomes nothing more than a partisan exchange of slogans and rhetoric.

Unfortunately, not all uninformed comments and messages are the work of bots. People can make mistakes too, and some will voice opinions after a quick search for keywords.

Keyword searches can be useful, but searching for terms and phrases is no substitute for reading the article. Without further reading, the context is missed. And without understanding the context, it is possible to make some big mistakes.

Daniel J. Levitin, in his 2016 book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, presents one example of what can happen when people scan a page without reading more carefully.

In 2014, supporters of a Republican congressional candidate in Florida built a website which looked a lot like their Democratic opponent’s site. At first glance, the site appeared to be a fundraising initiative for the Democratic candidate. But smaller text on the page stated the funds would be used to defeat the candidate.

The Democrats responded by building a similar site, targeting supporters of the Republican candidate.

Those websites were set up to fool potential donors, but the donors wouldn’t be fooled if they took the time to read the text on the page.

Levitin’s example is about deliberate attempts to deceive, but it also points out why a quick keyword scan isn’t enough.

We live in an age of abundant information and a wealth of knowledge. But all the information in the world is useless unless one chooses to take the time to read it.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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