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October 25, 2007

rumors greatly exaggerated

(In Cambridge) Anthony DeStefano quotes me in a NY Post article about Simonetta Stefanelli. This actress starred in "The Godfather" at age 17 but is now dead, according to several prominent websites. This upsets her, since she is actually alive and well. DeStefano asked me about the prevalence of false information online and what we should do about it.

One of the offending sites was Wikipedia, which can easily be corrected, as I pointed out. Indeed, the Wikipedia page on Stefanelli now says: "She is alive, and not dead, as reported previously." So that's one answer: there's false information online, but you can correct it. Unfortunately, Signora Stefanelli and her family didn't know how to edit Wikipedia, and it took a newspaper article to prompt the correction.

Sometimes people give another answer: we need to teach students how to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources. I'm skeptical about this idea, because I don't want to load an additional teaching function onto our overburdened schools. I also doubt that there are special techniques for identifying reliability online. Instead, I suspect that the ability to tell which websites are reliable is a direct function of one's general literacy and factual knowledge .

Nevertheless, I believe it's worth building websites that are comprehensible, comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable. Then at least we can steer potentially naive readers to safe places. An example is MedlinePlus, the US Government's medical portal, which costs the federal government money to build and maintain but seems worthwhile. I am, as DeStefano says, "an advocate for funding by government and institutions of reliable Web portals."

October 25, 2007 4:32 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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