Accuracy standards on the internet

A basic observation about the internet is that there are differing accuracy standards in different contexts. For example, the accuracy standards of a newspaper are supposed to be higher than that of a “hot take”. This here blog has standards somewhere in the middle. I’m not speaking extemporaneously, so I’m expected to do some fact checking. But I’m also not paid to do that for you, so reader beware.

Conflict can occur when content of certain accuracy standards get judged by different accuracy standards than was understood by the author. The classic example is when someone tweets out a casual thought they had while in the shower, and then it goes viral because it contains some error. A small indiscretion–a stupid thought like what we all have–gets turned into a large one.

Audience size has a lot to do with it. The price of an error is spreading misinformation, which is proportional to the size of the audience. The price of fact-checking is spending time to do your homework, which is unrelated to the size of the audience. So for a larger audience, the cost-benefit analysis leans more and more towards fact-checking. For a small audience, at some point it’s like, why bother? You can issue a correction later if you have to.

The example of the casual tweet going viral is associated with a sudden change in audience size. The original author may have had only a few followers, and what’s the worst that can happen? But then when it goes viral, suddenly there’s a perception that they coughed up this lump for all the world to see, and didn’t even bother to google it. In all likelihood they didn’t bother to google it for the same reason that I don’t bother to google everything I say to friends at a bar.

Barring sudden changes in audience, there’s also the issue that creators don’t necessarily have a good grasp on how large their audiences are. You can look at your subscriber count, but what does that really mean? My instinct is to compare myself to other creators I know, but basically every creator is aware of larger giants in their neighborhood. I know lots of readers think of me as some internet bigshot, but I look at other bloggers on the FTB network and think of myself as a small fry. And FTB itself is a tiny next to the youtube channels I watch. And then I hear youtubers say they’re just tiny creators, which has me concerned if they really understand the magnitude of their responsibility to speak accurately.

Apart from audience size, there can be other contextual factors, such as the perceived casualness of the setting, or the perceived expertise of the author. Sorry, I know Twitter doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s still a good example of a setting that many people would treat casually. It was also a space where people could directly interact with a lot of experts. It turns out that experts have their own shower thoughts.

Sometimes I wonder how much this explains the phenomena of experts “speaking outside their area of expertise”. Experts like to speak outside of their area of expertise for the same reason that everyone else likes to do so. If you’re not an expert in anything, couldn’t we say that you are always speaking outside your area of expertise? The issue is that people expect higher accuracy standards from a known expert, even when they speak on subjects they have no expertise in. And the expert may share the blame for encouraging these expectations, by speaking authoritatively and overconfidently.

There’s an underlying moral question here. Is the problem that creators aren’t doing enough homework? Or is the problem that expectations aren’t being set correctly? I think that there’s always some responsibility to the truth–if a celebrity repeats dangerous lies, it’s not enough for them to say they’re just shooting the shit. But I also don’t think we can go to the other extreme. Fact-checking is not always easy, and can make socially important discussions inaccessible to people that need to be heard.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Which takes us back to 1877 and W. K. Clifford’s dictum in “The Ethics of Belief”

    It Is Wrong, Always, Everywhere, And For Anyone, To Believe Anything Upon Insufficient Evidence

    — though one might split hairs about putative differences between “saying” and “believing”.

  2. says

    This I believe:
    Knowing the difference between fact and belief is one of the most important things.*

    [I guess technically that should be: “believing you know the difference between fact and belief…” but that’s going to pop the stack.]

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