By: Chris Warren.
The internet enables the average person to access more data from their smartphone than could be stored in an entire large university research library twenty years ago. Lost in the excitement of holding all civilized wisdom in one’s hand is the reality that the internet also provides a platform for dishonesty that, when mixed with just enough actual facts and spread around far enough, will sound completely plausible.
This week’s Twenty First Summer article started out as a thoughtful introspection about Glen Buratti, a six year old autistic boy who was cruelly snubbed on his birthday by his entire kindergarten class. During the process of reading up on the story and planning my article, I noticed a familiar plot shaping up: A victimized child, a mother openly wishing she could make it right, and an internet full of complete strangers coming to the rescue. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending.
But that’s not where I’m going with this. The familiar plot was a tipoff: These stories occasionally go the wrong way. Everyone has heard of someone running to the media or the internet with a heart-tugging tale. The tale goes viral, attracting huge levels of support and attention and money, only for it to turn out later that they lied about the whole thing. I’ve grown cynical in my internet old age. Even a cute little kid doesn’t get an automatic free pass out of me. I always turn to my old friend google to cross-check everything lest I too become just another sucker who got duped into propagating an endless chain of electronic fiction.
As hard as I tried, I could not bust the Glenn Buratti story. There were some odd aspects to it that didn’t quite line up, but no big gotcha! There wasn’t even a little gotcha! Part of me felt relieved this wasn’t a scam. It is one of those feel-good stories affirming my faith that humanity doesn’t totally suck after all. I wanted it to be true. Another part of me felt like a cad for questioning Glenn’s mother’s motives in the first place. Maybe I should have no reason to feel bad because being suspicious is part of modern life, or at least it should be.
So that’s where I’m at: Validate everything, especially if I’m going to use it as the topic of a blog article. That old fashioned sense of giving everyone the benefit of a doubt doesn’t work the way it did in days past. I’m not naive enough to think dishonesty is new concept, nor will I be guilt-tripped because I checked my facts before I put my byline on something for the whole world to see. The internet has made it easy to confirm truth, it’s also made it easy to bury a lie. President Ronald Reagan’s maxim, “trust but verify” no longer applies only to nuclear disarmament agreements.
Beyond the obvious moral lesson that kindness always trumps the mean spirited, the Glenn Buratti story also teaches that it’s not a wise policy to accept someone at their word. There are so many scams and flim-flams out there; it poisons the well for any honest person in need who wants to be taken seriously. At the other end of the transaction are generous people who want to help but are holding back on the possibility they are being played. I still believe in compassion, empathy, and humanity toward others. Since I hold all of mankind’s knowledge in the palm of my hand, I’m going to to make sure there is enough truth to warrant my good will before I invest any heart and soul into someone else’s tears.