The Internet: Reader Beware

Many people believe everything they read with little thought about how solid the source may be. This can be bad enough with written material, but at least magazines, newspapers and books are produced by people who understand libel laws and the result if they don’t get their facts straight.

The laws concerning slander and libel still haven’t caught up with the giddy ease the Internet affords to disseminate ideas to millions of people. There’s little likelihood on the Web of being held responsible for rumors or factual errors that damage the reputation of an individual or a company. Such errors usually aren’t deliberate attempts to hurt someone, but the effect is just the same.

Last month, one comment was made on the Internet that a well-known deworming product killed a horse (see page 23). This comment, with no investigation of the circumstances involved, was picked up so extensively that it sounded like the dewormer had caused an epidemic of problems. Unfortunately, this well-meaning attempt to prevent possible injury probably caused real harm by raising unfounded suspicions of an effective deworming product that could rid horses of destructive parasites.

The Internet is a wonderful tool to save time, something horsemen always need. We can easily transfer written material and send quick notes instead of getting bogged down in phone conversations. We can get results from competitions around the world more readily than from any other source. We can have the fun of “meeting” people with similar interests and exchanging ideas.

Many web sites are clearly maintained by well-known companies that stand behind the facts there. Other sites that allow open forums may be checked by reliable monitors and can have useful discussions.

But anonymity and lack of accountability can allow comments to flow from one person’s fingertips to the eyes of millions where previously the impact was limited by the range of the voice. Gossip that was once whispered across stall partitions is now screamed across continents. People like to hear themselves talk, and there’s little on the Internet to stop them. Chat rooms and forums can be frustrating when someone with more emotion than good sense is given free rein. We wonder about the validity of ideas put forth by “horsemen” who seem to spend more time on the Web than they do in the barn.

Urban legends that previously took years to build can be created instantly on the Internet. There’s no need to pass along a rumor “just in case it’s true” or because someone somewhere “checked it out and it’s legit.” Bill Gates is not going to give you $1,000, and there’s no kidney theft ring in New Orleans or $200 Nieman Marcus cookie recipe, as anyone who’s been using the Web has heard.

Composing e-mail or posting something on the Internet is as easy as writing on the walls of a public restroom, and the quality of the information found there may be just as valid.

’Til next month,

-Margaret Freeman