The Rise of this Misinformation Age

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising

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I blame Y2K.

Or more specifically, the hysteria that built up over the moment the clocks would hit the first second of the year 2000.  At that point, every computer and microchip would…well, they would do something.  Something awful, something bad, something awful…bad. Pundits preached caution. Web firms sold protective software and patches.  Corporations and governments prepared for the worst…

Then nothing happened.

Real life flew in the face of every exalted expert, every network news designated authority, everyone we entrusted with our faith in the worst.  In the end, Y2K was a non-event.

Unfortunately, these types of non events seem to be on an upswing of late, spurred on by our voracious 24/7 appetite for news.  Just last week, the clean up effort in the Gulf was suspended due to the looming onset of Hurricane Bonnie; oil rigs were abandoned, crews evacuated.  But by the end of the week, Bonnie weakened considerably as it passed over Florida and by Saturday, the National Hurricane Center characterized it as ‘dissipated.’  Still, the dire predictions alone resulted in a 27% drop in Gulf crude-oil production and 10% in natural gas.

More amazingly, the New York Times reported yesterday that the oil slick itself appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected.  Apparently 80º seawater that bakes at 100º at the surface may have evaporated as much as 40% of the gushing light crude.  Combined with microbacterial degradation and the effects of all that chemical dispersant, the slick has largely disappeared.  That’s not to say we’re out of the woods and everything is snips and snails and puppy dog tails, but it bears remembering that less than two months ago on June 2, this same august organization reported that a nuclear option was being considered to stem the seemingly unstoppable flow.

People make mistakes.  Even experts can get it wrong.  And given the choice between measured rationality and fever-pitch hysteria, news outlets will always pick the latter.  After all, they’re in the business of selling newspapers and aggregating viewers.  Just think back to that Summer when killer pit bulls threatened every man, woman and child in America with their evil, pipe-snapping jaws, and ask yourself what happened? Suddenly those stories stopped.  Did the dogs suddenly stop biting people or was the threat exaggerated in the first place?

Our throughly wired, always on world now lurches from crisis to crisis, and our collective stomach linings grow progressively thinner with worry.  Almost all of us battle some sort of low-level anxiety regarding all these uncontrollable yet broadly publicized threats to our well being.  For weeks, I got two or three updates a day on the performance of the stock market until I finally realized how to opt out of these updates–they were making me nervous and I know next to nothing about financial markets.  Tom Petty got it right with his song “Crawling Back To You”: “MOST OF THE THINGS I WORRY ABOUT/NEVER HAPPEN ANYWAY.”

We live in an unparalleled information age.  And by the same measure, an unparalleled misinformation age.  And so the real advantage lies not with whomever can accumulate the most information, but whomever can curate the best information.

That’s a key skill for these dizzying times.

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By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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2 thoughts on “The Rise of this Misinformation Age

  1. Added to that, we have members of our government “not wanting to waste a good crisis” and suddenly BOOM – you have a lot of “convenient crisis'”.

    At least one a week.

    It not only sells papers – it advances agendas too.

    As for me – I’ll just look forward to December 22nd, 2012.

  2. Great post Dennis. Makes me think of a Mark Twain quote:

    “The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.”

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