The Internet is pretty cool. With the right Internet connection, I can speak to somebody in China or Brazil in real time. I can watch my favorite TV shows and movies whenever I want. I can play video games with people all across the world. I can order food, download music, look at pictures of cats, and even ship my enemies glitter that explodes in their face when they open the envelop.
But for me, probably the coolest thing about the Internet is the unprecedented access it grants to information about the past. Want to learn about ancient Rome? Or how about read the works of Lao-Tzu? Maybe Medieval Islam is your thing. Or maybe, if you’re like me, you want to have access to high resolution scans of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whatever it is, you’re just a Google search away from a veritable mountain of information on whatever topic you’d like.
The best part about all of this is that if something’s on the Internet, it has to be true. Right? I mean, it’s not like anybody would lie on the Internet.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, dear Internet user, but Charles W. Cooke has a sobering reminder about the information we encounter on the world wide web.
It is said that the chief virtue of the Internet age is that anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers. But it is also fair to say that the chief vice of the Internet age is that . . . anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers.
You see, the problem is that, like any other tool, the Internet is, to use Lehi’s words, something to be acted upon (2 Ne. 2:14). It is not a sentient being. It does not have a will. It is inherently amoral; a tool wielded by both component and incompetent, moral and immoral masters. Cooke summarizes the Internet thusly:
Contrived and mistranscribed quotes abound, along with historical and legal and scientific offerings that simply do not pass muster. For the laymen in any field, it can be difficult to detect which is which. And understandably so. The Web is where we are supposed to go to find the truth — a virtual Library of Alexandria for the modern era — and yet there are no red flags to indicate the impostors. Imagine, if you will, what might happen if your local athenaeum replaced a good portion of its books with parodic or mendacious equivalents, and then interspersed the perfidious volumes with the genuine articles. That’s the Internet.
Cooke wisely observes that the proliferation of falsehoods and deceptions on the web is due to its very nature. Anyone with a keyboard and basic literacy can say whatever they want without fetter. You don’t need a PhD or peer review to use the Internet, after all.
There is an elementary reason that the Web’s many miscreants spend so much time photoshopping photographs, fabricating quotations, and manufacturing downright falsehoods, the better to fool the masses: It works. Because such a small premium is placed on verisimilitude, the likes of Mark Twain, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar Wilde have all had attributed to them a series of sentiments that they never even contemplated but that are now broadly regarded as their own. Contemporary figures are no safer from the game.
Herein lies the danger of the Internet, according to Cooke. Sure, it’s a fantastic tool to access untold amounts of the information. Nobody doubts that. But what many don’t seem to realize (or what many consciously choose to ignore) is that the mere availability of information does not guarantee the quality thereof.
If the Internet is to be our guide, both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill observed that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Whichever one of them actually said it, however, it seems clear that the maxim is twice as true in the age of Twitter and Snapchat as it was a century ago. Today, the ready availability of interconnected publishing tools has enabled almost anybody to plot a grand hoax and to get away with it. Just as Stalin “knew” deep down that the Kulaks were undermining his glorious social experiment and thus felt comfortable improvising the necessary proof, so do our modern show-trialers consider it tolerable to provide false evidence in order to secure their readers’ affections.
A sad reality, to be sure, but there’s no denying it.
This all of course has direct relevance for the Church of Jesus Christ, and Church leaders have not failed to be aware of the potential the Internet has for spreading both positive and negative information about the Church. Elders M. Russell Ballard and David A. Bednar are notable examples of Church leaders who have urged the importance of using the Internet to both stem the tide of misinformation and deception about the Church found online as well as preach the gospel. But they are not alone. Elder Quinten L. Cook lamented in the October 2012 General Conference, “Some have immersed themselves in Internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and, in some cases, invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. Then they draw incorrect conclusions that can affect testimony.” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf likewise reminded us of the following in 2013:
For those who already embrace the truth, [Satan’s] primary strategy is to spread the seeds of doubt. For example, he has caused many members of the Church to stumble when they discover information about the Church that seems to contradict what they had learned previously.
If you experience such a moment, remember that in this age of information there are many who create doubt about anything and everything, at any time and every place.
You will find even those who still claim that they have evidence that the earth is flat, that the moon is a hologram, and that certain movie stars are really aliens from another planet. And it is always good to keep in mind, just because something is printed on paper, appears on the Internet, is frequently repeated, or has a powerful group of followers doesn’t make it true.
Certainly, the world has changed in the last generation or two. The Internet has put all kinds of information at our fingertips—good, bad, truthful, untruthful—including information on Church history. You can read a great deal about our history, but it’s important to read about it and understand it in context. The difficulty with some information online is that it’s out of context and you don’t really see the whole picture.
Information that tries to embarrass the Church is generally very subjective and unfair. We should seek sources that more objectively describe our beliefs and our history. Some websites are very mean-spirited and can be sensational in how they present the information. Look for sources by recognized and respected historians, whether they’re members of the Church or not.
The tantrums of Jeremy Runnells notwithstanding, what these brethren have taught is absolutely true. It’s college-level critical thinking 101. Don’t default to Wikipedia or reddit for your information. Don’t default to meme-think. Don’t default to snarky YouTube videos. Steven C. Harper said it best, “Googling is not a synonym for seeking.” Take the time and make the honest effort to acquaint yourself with “the best books” (D&C 88:118) you can find on Mormon history, scripture, and doctrine. (For our purposes here, “the best books” include academic journal articles, academic and popular press publications, Internet websites, multimedia, etc.) It will ultimately be much better for you intellectually and spiritually.