I need help: working out what is true and what isn't on the Internet

Hermes and Technological Lies

In Greek mythology, Hermes was the messenger of the gods who chained up Prometheus and aided Perseus in his quest to kill Medusa. Yet he is also regarded as the god of oratory, wit, commerce and, in general, the cunning of thieves and liars. The fact is that in Greek mythology, lying was the supreme form of divine entertainment. The gods lied to each other but above all, and in spite of their divinity and superhuman power, they told lie after lie to mortals.  Fortunately for us, the tales seem to demonstrate that the gods lacked the power to dominate the mortal world by their strength alone and had to resort to their skills in confusing and lying to the trusting humans.

As part of our development through the ages, we have learned that truth cannot be completely separated from fiction or myths, because empirical truth is not the only form of truth. For example, there are psychological truths, or the truths that underpin values and ideals. In his dialogue Hippias Minor, Plato shows us the rudiments of the art of lying and tells us that the reason we are able to lie is that we know how to play with the truth: a half-truth is better than a good lie. The manipulation of the truth is therefore an ancient cultural tradition, but while it may have occasionally proved beneficial from the evolutionary point of view, that may not be the case on a personal and social level.

Where Are We Headed?

The philosopher Jean-François Revel believed lies to be the dominant force governing the world. If that is true, then perhaps we need to admit that since we are probably never going to be able (or possibly even want) to free ourselves from lies, then at least we need to find a way of controlling lies in the technological environments of this cyberspace in which we are learning to live, of differentiating between what is reliable and what is misleading, just as our biological and cultural evolution equips us to do, with a greater or lesser degree of success, almost innately in the real world.

Truth and Lies on the Internet

There is no doubt that culture molds human beings and enables us to transcend the limits of our genetic behavior.

With eons of evolution behind us, our genetic inheritance has allowed us to survive and become sensitive to the environment, with the result that we are capable of "detecting" and "experiencing sensations" when we interact with other human beings: with a greater or lesser degree of success, we can sense when they represent a threat to our integrity or to veracity. And yet, in this technological era of social networks, mass communication and Photoshop, that acquired skill intrinsic to the human being seems to be waning, or at least fading. Our adaptation to this new environment has been limited by the development of technology.

We are currently in a space of transition between the analog and digital worlds, where rumors, word of mouth, and more or less objective journalism are bytes "tossed into the wild", with the capacity to expand globally "ad infinitum" in a question of minutes. We are gradually changing our habits. More and more we interact with the media through links that people have shared with us or that we come across in the social networks, and according to experts this apparently affects how, as internauts, we perceive the news, the media in general, and the work of journalists.

Robert Mathis, a teacher at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, USA, carried out an experiment that consisted in sending his students a note informing them that the subject of the Holocaust was going to be removed from the syllabus. A few days later, he shared a website with them that supported this decision. All it took for the students to accept the veracity of the announcement was the teacher's email and the existence of a website on the Internet.

Our cultural and genetic baggage are clearly well adapted to the local scale and help us interact with familiar environments in which we can investigate and understand a "manageable quantity of information". But when it comes to the vast quantities of information that bombard us on the Internet, it is more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, new projects like and are emerging to train and help people hone their critical thinking and reasoning skills. Even so, the statistics regarding so much information are less than encouraging, and there is a high probability that we will be misled or hoodwinked.