Recently, a diverse group of New York City high school students was assigned to write reports on Martin Luther King, Jr. Searching the Internet, several students learned that the renowned civil rights leader had in fact been a drunken philandering con man. Others concluded that the federal holiday marking King’s birthday should be repealed.
Where in the www did these kids search?
Google, for starters.
If you enter “Martin Luther King, Jr.” as a search term, the site netting the third-highest ranking is martinlutherking(dot)org, which purports to be “A valuable resource for teachers and students alike.” Visit the site and you can read the “truth” about King — communist, wife-beater, plagiarist, sexual deviant and all-around fraud. There are flyers to the same effect that children can download, print and bring to school.
As you have probably guessed, this site is not run by the King Center, the memorial established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King to the advance her husband’s legacy (TheKingCenter.org ranks seventh on Google). Rather, MartinLutherKing(dot)org is a spinoff of Stormfront(dot)org, the “white nationalist” online community created in 1995 by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Don Black. Stormfront’s Web forum now claims nearly 214,000 participants. Black registered martinlutherking(dot)org on January 14, 1999, later adding MLKing(dot)org and MLKing(dot)com.
Some years ago, I was doing research on Joseph Stalin. I had looked at a number of web sites and found one with a lot of information. Strangely it considered him one of the greatest rulers in Russian history. I found this difficult to reconcile with the 51 million dead people. So, I did some further research. I discovered that the Communist party had not disappeared in Russia and there had been regular demonstrations calling for a return to Communist rule and opposed to historical research that cast the years of Communist rule in a “bad” light. The web site I had found was one of theirs. It was fake history, a fantasy
I am a college teacher. I have a posting I call “The Internet Care Kit” with the more important and reliable web sites on them. I usually post them on the class website about midway through the semester. I find it odd that the old creaky teacher (me) often knows more about web than my students. Oh, they can social media better than me but they are often helpless on important topics. I only rarely find a student who knows what Project Gutenberg is.
I know it’s hard to navigate the web without abundant caution But I treasure the huge amount of information and opinion on the web. I am old enough to remember crawling on the floor of a university library to get to the lower cards in a card catalog that was almost too tall to reach and far too low for comfort. I would be trying to find an appropriate source for my writing . It would take me thirty minutes to get five sources and if it was an esoteric topic, nothing at all.
Now, it’s amazing. I can find hundreds, sometimes thousands of postings on even rare subjects. For the learner, it’s a dream come to life. Sometimes, I just prowl the internet. I find one interesting posting and follow a link from it to another site and then another and so on.
When I was a little boy and watched science fiction movies with mainframe computers that filled buildings, I dreamed one day I would work one of those. Even today, working on a computer never quite feels like work. It’s an adventure.
Along with adventure, there are viruses, spam, malware, rip-offs, pornography and enough just simple strangeness to frighten the most stalwart among us. But I wouldn’t go back to crawling on the floor of the library looking hopefully for some kind of information.
I don’t know anything that will help people get through their research safe from falsehood and political fantasy besides a healthy skepticism. That’s probably how it should be. We are beset continually by lies and exaggeration. Why should we expect the web to be any better?
Are you confident in the 24 hours news cycle? Are you confident in the promises of the political world? Do you find the beltway commentators reliable? Does corporate PR give you a sense of security? The web is treacherous but it is not alone in its danger.
Those children have to learn caution sometime and it’s better now than later. Now, they don’t have credit card accounts to be stolen, Nigerian princes willing to share their millions with them, the secrets to investing in gold, the coming apocalypse or their vital need for an interesting variety of performance enhancing drugs. I understand that the young face threats of their own on the web but isn’t that something that a healthy dose of skepticism will assist in. Let’s develop their judgment early.