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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Fraud

A Commentary By By Froma Harrop

Thursday, April 23, 2015

There's been some tense back-and-forth over the Canadian mother who said she had stopped opposing vaccinations after all seven of her kids came down with whooping cough. Some say we should loudly thank Tara Hills for publicly disowning her anti-vax campaign. Others -- me, for instance -- are feeling less grateful.   

Hills went beyond spreading lies about the "dangers" of vaccinations and exposing her Ottawa neighbors to serious disease. She strongly implied that the best medical authorities are "puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy," according to The Washington Post -- and on a site demoniacally named TheScientificParent.org.   

You've probably seen the famous cartoon showing a dog at a computer saying to another dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The word "dog" could have been replaced with "fraud."   

As more Americans turn to online forums for advice on everything from where to eat to whether they need surgery, concerns mount about the quality of the information. Readers often use the consensus of forum participants to bypass the views of recognized experts. And because these forums are usually little-monitored, the "weight of opinion" is often determined by the most verbose and those with too much time on their hands.   

Millennials have become especially reliant on (apparent) group consensus, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the "sharing economy." "If trust in individuals and institutions is waning or at best holding steady," the report notes, "faith in the aggregate is growing."  

That is, consumers who disbelieve a hotel chain's claims of fine accommodations will show up at the door of a total stranger, renting a room via Airbnb -- their trust totally based on reviews submitted by who-knows-who.   

As we know, interested parties or crazy people can create a phony consensus. Then you have people like the Ottawa mother, who seemed truly committed to her beliefs but was unable or too lazy to examine expert opinion in reaching them.  

In a similar vein, Sarah Watts wrote an interesting essay about her online confab with other millennial new mothers on caring for an infant. At the time, her own mother was on the scene urging her not to worry if baby June cried shortly after a feeding. The crying will stop, the mother's mother said. That advice turned out to be good.   

"I had been scouring message boards and Facebook groups during June's nursing sessions," Watts said, "and I had stumbled on discussions of every kind of parenting issue imaginable." Some were issues she had never heard of, such as cord clamping and vitamin K shots.   

Most posted questions, Watts observed, resulted in respondents "bandying conflicting research like a weapon, every one of them armed with a battery of qualifiers to describe her personal parenting philosophy." (I might take her skepticism one step further and wonder whether the other "moms" were actually mothers or even women.)   

We see the clamor of anonymous and inexpert posts on everything from foreign policy to breast-feeding. Certain forums are purposely designed to buttress one point of view. They attract like-minded commenters, who leave the impression of overwhelming support for a position.   

It's crazy out there. Good sites are often so plagued by armies of the uninformed filling their forums with dimwitted comments that smart people stay away. But some well-run forums are hugely interesting.   

It's a sign of the times that Californians trying to tighten the vaccination mandate for schoolchildren now worry that the drawn-out legislative process will open the door to anti-vaxxers intent on poisoning public opinion. In many cases, readers won't even know who they are. The scary part is many won't even care.   

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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