When The Associated Press appeared to tweet April 24 that there were two explosions in the White House, we were right to believe the news, even though it turns out that the AP Twitter account had been hacked. There were no explosions; the tweet was false. But believing the AP is not where we went wrong. Our occasional believing false reports should awaken us to the dangers of literalism. The problem with literalism is that it thinks that language works simply: A word means what it means. But in truth it’s never that simple. We hear words in sentences that provide context and attitude. So, when we see that the tweet announcing an attack on the White House came from no less than the AP, it’s no surprise that the stock market went into a panic, as did many of us. You don’t have to be from Boston, as I am, to be jumpy about news about bombs.
Upon learning that the words weren’t really from the AP, the first lesson we probably want to draw is: Be skeptical. That’s a healthy reaction, but we need to go beyond skepticism if we’re going to survive the Internet’s greatest blessing, the fact that anyone can post anything she or he wants. Skepticism recommends that we doubt every authority. I’m suggesting that before we even get around to doubting authorities, we need to remember that authority is conveyed not in the message but in the information that comes with the message. Every tweet, for example, consists of more than whatever the message says in 140 characters or fewer. The tweet comes stamped with the time it was posted, the Twitter handle of the person who posted it (“@AssociatedPress”) and an image chosen by the Twitterer.
All of that is information about the message that helps you understand it. If it’s from your old chum, you may take the message as a bad joke because she’s always kidding around. If it comes from a particular acquaintance, you may ignore it because he’s always passing around sensationalist false news. And if it comes from a source such as the AP, you are likely to assume that the information is reliable. None of these considerations are in the words of the tweet itself, but without them, the words are just words. So, another of the lessons of the hacking of the AP Twitter account is that we should remember just how deeply we depend upon nonliteral reading. We depend upon a complex system of signs, signals and cues that help us understand what to make of the literal words we read. We will sometimes be led astray by these signs because, well, some people suck. But if we are to survive, we need to become highly aware of how the information that surrounds information determines what we make of that information. For example, how does a writer’s competence in grammar and spelling affect our attitude toward him or her, and are we sure that we’re not inadvertently lowering the credibility of people who deserve to be heard? Does someone acting like an expert increase the believability of the message, and does “acting like an expert” have gender overtones in your culture? Are we being swayed by a site’s tone of voice and design chosen specifically to make the site seem more “friendly” and believable? Speaking figuratively, we now need to read with three sets of eyes, not the usual two. The first set reads the message. The second picks up the information that determines how we understand the message. The third pair tries to watch how the second pair is working, always trying to refine the assumptions we make, and looking for cues that the usual signals are unreliable. We’ve always had the first two sets, but the third set is more important than ever because the new world of the Internet is so blessedly open and fluid. A failure to perpetually train that third set of eyes will doom us to being swayed by cleverly designed lies.
David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of “Too Big to Know” (Basic Books).