One of the most important things to consider when evaluating the legitimacy of information found on the internet is context. The original context of a piece of information includes vital details about its creation or distribution, such as who created it, and why. It’s common for information on the internet to be distributed without its original context. This results in the information being misinterpreted and misattributed, as people try to fill in the gaps for themselves. This is often how urban legends get started. A story with a small grain of truth to it is distributed without context, new contexts are invented.
Information distributed without context is prone to misinterpretation
As an example, lets take a look at some viral footage that appeared on the Internet in 2007. The footage became known as the “Haiti UFO”, and appears to depict several elaborate spaceships flying over a Caribbean city. The video was actually created as visual effects test footage for an upcoming film by a French animator who goes by the Youtube handle of barzolff814. Without this context, it was interpreted as supposedly real footage. Some people were wowed by the footage, believing it to be remarkable evidence of extra-terrestrial visitors, whereas some were more skeptical, and proceeded to analyse the footage for evidence of fakery. If the context of the original video was known, ie that it was a piece of test visual effects footage, then less people would have believed it was real and the “debunking” wouldn’t have been necessary.
Occupy Wall Street
A more recent example is an image that I recently blogged about, which reportedly shows massive turnouts at the Occupy Wall Street protests. As I stated in the subsequent follow up to this post, the origin of this image was a digital artist by the name of Scott Lickstein, who created it to represent a “virtual turnout” of the supporters of the movement. However this context was quickly lost as the image was disseminated on various social networks, and so people started believing it was real. The addition of captions which further propagated the idea that the image was real furthered this misinterpretation, and resulted in the viral dissemination of misinformation.
I stated in a comment on the original post that when it comes to viral images like this, the original context is irrelevant if it is unknown by the people distributing it down the line. What I meant by this is that when the intentions of the original creator are not known, then the invented contexts that are attached onto the information down the line override the original context. Whilst I’m sure Lickstein had the best intentions when he created his art piece, as it was distributed without this information it became accepted as a factual representation, therefore his intentions are irrelevant.
A much more ancient example of this is the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. This strange book contains hundreds of pages of strange illustrations and illegible text which has to this day not been decyphered. The book is exquisitely detailed and carbon dating of the paper reveals that it was made (at least the paper was) sometime in the 14th century. Exactly when it was created, by whom and for what purpose is still a mystery, though there are a number of theories.
Brian Dunnings favourite theory is that a botanist, astrologer or alchemist wanted to produce marketing material indicating that he had mysterious knowledge from the east. He commissioned a scribe to produce a text filled with indecypherable information in a made up language and script. As a result the professional had a convincing piece of marketing material which suggested some mysterious source of knowledge, similar to the lab-coat worn by a naturopath.
Whilst this theory may or may not be true, in terms of the subject at hand its another example of how context is vital to the understanding of knowledge. We don’t know who created the book or why, therefore theories have to be invented. Perhaps it’s a hoax, perhaps it really is lost knowledge from an ancient civilisation, but without the original context we have no idea of its true purpose.