Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Stop Spreading Manure

So. Much. Manure.

Believing and spreading manure -- lies, falsehoods, and misleading implications -- makes you look bad and makes the internet a dumber place.
The Best of Ask Leo!


Supposedly, in a report a few years ago, Google admitted you should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever when using their services. The internet went crazy. Many sources proclaimed, “How outrageous! We told you so! Google is evil!” Mainstream news outlets picked up stories from smaller publishers, and they all confirmed the entire sordid mess.

Except the internet was wrong. Manure, to use a polite term, was being spread far, wide, and fast.

This is where things get complicated.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!


Don't be a manure spreader.

You and I and everyone we know must become more skeptical and more demanding of our news and information sources. You and I must think about what we read. You and I must realize that we might be wrong. And you and I must stop spreading anything we aren’t sure is the truth.

Everyone has an agenda

In the television series House, Dr. Gregory House often says, “Everyone lies.”

On the internet, a similar statement can be made: everyone has an agenda.

Every website, news organization, and person sending an email, publishing a newsletter, or posting a comment has an agenda of some sort. They have something they want you to do, think, or become.1

All too often, the agenda being promoted is inconsistent (for lack of a better word) with reality.

The information presented is almost always colored by an agenda. People highlight facts supporting it, conveniently minimizing or ignoring facts that don’t. In the worst case, people fabricate facts to support their agenda.

Yes: not everyone, but some people, lie. Perhaps more often than you think.

To be honest, we all do it: we color what we say and do with data to support what we believe, often to the exclusion of all evidence pointing out the unthinkable: that we might be wrong.

If it’s on the internet, it must be…

There’s an interesting and strange conflict in our culture.

Most people realize that “If it’s on the internet, it must be true” is a sarcastic falsism expressing just how inaccurate information on the internet can be. Just because it’s published on a website somewhere (or shows up in your inbox, on Facebook, or wherever) doesn’t make it true.

However, I would wager most people actually do believe most of what they read on the internet. Those same people smiling knowingly at that falsism go on to believe the strangest, most bizarre, completely false things as long as the information is presented in a seemingly credible way.

They do it without thinking and without seeing the irony in their behavior.

From what I’ve seen, it’s getting worse.

We believe what we want to believe

A couple of terms help explain why this might be.

Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to believe things that confirm what we already believe and dismiss what doesn’t. Confirmation bias can be as simple as dismissing alternative viewpoints out of hand and as horrific as being tried and arrested for expressing beliefs that are not commonly accepted (think Galileo).

The problem with confirmation bias, as Galileo so clearly illustrates, is that it often stands in the way of the truth.

Put another way, we believe what we want to believe. We believe what matches our own world view and our own agenda whether we are right or not.

Echo chamber is the tendency of information sources — most notably news media — to repeat each other. In a sense, they use each other as sources. The problem is that a story originating from a single source — be it true or false — can appear to have massive confirmation when we see it presented in a variety of supposedly independent sources.

Those sources aren’t independent at all. They’re just repeating what they heard from each other.

And it all started from a single source.

A source with an agenda.

50 shades of gray

Things get more complicated still.

We desperately want things to be simple. We want things to be true or false, black or white, right or wrong.

Good or evil.

It’s much easier to comprehend “true” and “false” than it is to deal with the potential uncertainty of “mostly true”, “kind of wrong”, or something in between. Unlike whether the sun circles the earth or the other way around, the issues that we consider, discuss, and even rant about are rarely so simple as to have easy, yes/no, black or white answers.

The folks who write headlines and push agendas know thinking is hard for many of us. They know black and white is easier, and (bonus!) much more sensational. So they pick and choose the “facts” supporting black-and-white thinking at the exclusion of the significantly more nuanced truth.

About that Google privacy thing

So is your email private with Google or not?

It’s not that simple. It’s still not a yes-or-no answer.

And yet:

Even though some sites posted clarifications and/or updates, they often did so too late (the misinformation had spread) or too little (the clarifications remained biased to the pre-existing story or agenda).

Email privacy, and privacy on the internet in general, is a critically important and complex concept. Services like Gmail do process your email to do things like filter spam or populate indexes so you can search your email quickly. Are there teams of people sitting behind computer monitors reading your email? Almost certainly not.

However, unless you encrypt your email, it is by definition fundamentally not secure. This is nothing new or specific to Google.

And yet, in the pursuit of clicks, page views, and anti-Google sentiment, some sources pick and choose what to present and sensationalize how they present it.

You. Must. Think.

So what’s the solution?

You. You are the solution. You and I and everyone we know must — and I really do mean must — become more skeptical and more demanding of our news and information sources.

You and I must think about what we read. We need to learn to identify the sources and the agendas those sources have that color what they present and how they present it.

We need to learn to seek unbiased information and draw our own conclusions.

Whenever you accept misleading or inaccurate stories as truth, you’ve been manipulated to serve someone else’s agenda. And when you pass those manipulative stories on to friends, family, and acquaintances? Well, my friend, you’ve just turned into a virtual manure spreader.

Because manure is exactly what it is.

Be skeptical.

If something sounds outrageous — even if it supports your beliefs — there’s a hefty chance that it’s completely bogus. Overly sensational or outrageous-sounding headlines or content are a hallmark of bogus stories.

Do a little research. Check and verify the sources; follow the trail. If they all point back to a single source (or no source at all), realize what you’re looking at. One source repeated in a thousand places doesn’t make it a thousand sources.

In the past, we could count on the media to fact- and source-check for us, but that’s clearly no longer true. In the race for media outlets to publish quickly, the effort to make sure it’s accurate has apparently been left behind.

Collateral damage: legitimate news and important issues

One of the truly sad casualties of all the misinformation on the internet is how difficult it has become to find the truth and how difficult it is for accurate, important news and information to get the attention it deserves.

It’s all lost in the noise: covered in manure.

The non-profit world has a term: donor fatigue. This applies to potential contributors who, while supportive of a particular cause or organization, simply get tired of being asked for money, time, or whatever repeatedly.

The same is true here.

Call it manure fatigue. It is tempting to disregard anything found on the internet as likely to be bogus.

Unfortunately, there are legitimate outrages, atrocities, and issues of privacy that really do deserve our attention and understanding.

It just takes skepticism and thought to separate the wheat from the fertilizer.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: My agenda is simple: I want you to be more skeptical before you believe what you see on the internet, and I want you to stop spreading misinformation. I’d love for this article to go viral and garner more Ask Leo! newsletter subscribers and site visitors, as well as improve my site’s reputation with Google. I have a large agenda. And don’t think for a moment that other sites, services, and individuals don’t have agendas that are as large or larger.

2: Selected at random from a Google News (irony) search on “Google Privacy”.

112 comments on “Stop Spreading Manure”

  1. Thanks, Leo, for writing this article. Too many times we just ignore what we know to be rubbish when we see it, but others might not be aware, and thus believe falsehoods left unopposed. Good for you–you took the time to challenge and explain. And yes, email is public and always has been, in spite of what someone might say to the contrary. The onus is on me to protect my information, and on no one else. Cheers. GPG 0xE2557AA7

    • The scary thing is I remember many years ago seeing a video on, I believe, YouTube ‘proving’ that a rare and expensive Japanese delicacy was ‘new born human babies’. The video even showed a store with babies in jars being sold.

      My guess is that some, if not many, people seeing that video believed the ‘manure’ being spread.

      The fact I even remember it shows how powerful it must have been at the time.

    • Again, it’s not as simple as “true” or “false”. Everyone wants it to be either true (“OMG! The government is spying on everyone!”) or false (“What a pile of paranoia!”). The reality is somewhere in between. I believe that many if not most of the news reports are significantly overblown, mostly for sensationalism and various agendas, political and otherwise. Is there some truth to it? Almost certainly. But I don’t lay awake at night worrying about the government spying on me.

      • What you have said is absolutely correct, Leo. When I was in the oil industry years ago, a situation arose that made both the president and prime minister ask for help from any petroleum geologist or engineer, that may know where there’s any viable gas/oil reserves and they would help to bring it surface. The president of the time said this in a “fireside” chat format. This was at the time of the Arab Oil Embargo.
        I knew that there was gas and oil in a formation called the Cardium here in Alberta and a significantly large one where the formation here was between 18-20 meters in thickness, with relatively “shallow” drilling.
        Here is where the problem incurred……the “field” was known for approximately 9 years before hand and they did do testing of the formation { a DST…drill stem testing } What the problem was, is the mudweight that they were currently using was “flushing” the porous sandstone in places and setting up like concrete, so that when they ran the DST, they obtained no results of any kind of a flow because there was no porosity or permiability left for any kind of gas or oil to flow into the well bore.
        This is where I ran into incredible problems with my fellow geologists, where 80% of them catagorically denied that there was any gas or oil in the Cardium…….because of the past years of testing that particular formation. This is what I call intellectual “tunnel vision”.
        Now …..I showed the Vice President of my company, a sample vial of crude oil that I poured off from my sample tray and told Tad to have a look under the UV light and it glowed a pale green indicative of 30 W {weight} oil. Then I told him, ” I got this from the formation { the Cardium } as we were drilling it, before a “filter cake” could set in. ” And I told him the only way we can get this gas and oil out is to drill that particular formation out, using a lighter mudweight that the engineers are going to have figure themselves. We were going to take all safety precautions into play and just tap into the formation and see how much pressure was coming back at us and adjust the weight accordingly to the pressures coming back at us.
        This was the first well, totally experimental…….but what the industry now calls ” Underweight Drilling”.
        It was successfull…..the reservoir engineers under my instructions to be conservative, because this formation is notorius for being “tight” { having little to no porosity or permeability }, to exhibiting classic well rounded sand grain particles ideal for fast high volume production that America desperately needed at that very moment. The reservoir engineers came back with a figure of “at least” 3.2 billion barrels of oil, and 7.3 trillion cu ft. of gas.
        This is how intellectual “tunnel vision” can occur in any field of science or industry.
        Yours truly,
        G. Kolankowski
        P.S. Thats for all your years of instructing me. You’ve been great.

      • Have you heard about Greenwald’s partner who was detained under Section 7 of the British Terrorism Act at Heathrow airport and had his electronics confiscated. Did your viewpoint change slightly after reading that and if not, why not?

        • Why would it? As I said, there is some truth to much of this. It’s just rarely as sensational or ominous as the various media outlets would portray. Government abuse of power is nothing at all new, nor is government’s appropriate use of power – in fact we don’t know which applies here.

          My point here has absolutely nothing to do with whether email is or is not being spyed upon, or whether government agencies are or are nto acting appropriately. My point is to always question the source before believing anything. Dig into the details. Understand the situation as much as possible before jumping to any rash conclusions.

  2. Dale,
    I think the point is to check it out yourself, on anything. If we made sure we knew what we were talking about before sharing anything it would make for a wiser and kinder discourse.

  3. So very well put!
    This applies not only to believing what we read on the internet, but also to beliefs about subjects like alternative medicine and other belief-based philosophies. Will be forwarding this email to several friends of like mind.

  4. “Virtual manure spreading” is nothing new except the word “virtual”,
    Virtual is new, it’s touching the internet, in other words we may say “Internet manure spreading”.

    But only “manure spreading” is well known, even our grandmothers and grandfathers faced this kind of spreading trough NEWSPAPERS, TV and similar media.
    In the time of our grandfathers/mothers NEW was spreading and “manure” was well known type of false information.

    Leo, you have right.
    Many people believe what they see or what they read because they don’t understand new type of manure, and that’s virtual manure.

  5. Two old sayings come to mind upon reading this: “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth” and “History is written by the conqueror”.
    Throughout history, things have been said and repeated (by people with an agenda or bias) until the common person believes it.
    The internet has made this process far easier. Instead of having to pay to print and distribute thousands of leaflets or books, all someone has to do is post it to any of the other micro-blog services, and that piece of ‘misinformation’ can reach millions. And some of the hoaxes this year (such as the one about Facebook shutting down completely during Feb 29 and Feb 30 for essential maintenance) prove just how gullible the ‘Internet’ is.

    To Quote the Darwin Awards: “Though the population of the Earth is ever increasing, the sum total of it’s IQ remains constant”

    • how true this is, we are saturated daily with news/re-news/re-news , the “weather cast seems to be more than the news (oh thats right, the weather changes at least once a day) .
      true; to know what the internet is must be understood on the level you use it and what it will evlove to; will be amazing and it will happen in the very near future, what you lay out there is
      “out there” to friends and good luck..
      “your own thoughts are your own”

  6. Leo, I commend you for this important and clear corrective. Back in my college days, I had several profs. who challenged us to listen for and discern the bias of the writer of resources we were asked to read. It was helpful then, and it continues to be an important skill now. The insight into our human inclination to absolutes is also on the mark. It can be hard work to discipline ourselves to carefully filter and weigh information as we gather it to ourselves. But the alternative can be dangerous and harmful, as you’ve noted well.

  7. I think we should all do whatever we can to see that this article get the most exposure possible. The importance of the points contained in this article cannot be overstated. Without critical and independent thinking we are lost.

  8. Good article. You can see evidence of people inserting their own agenda everywhere. Nice touch to clarify your own agenda at the bottom Leo.
    As for PRISM and NSA spying… If anyone has to read my email they will probably die of boredom.

  9. Leo I have to disagree with you on this one. Google defends their snooping by saying we should have no expectation of privacy when sending and e-mail. Really! They qualify that by saying that the e-mail goes from the sender to them and then to the recipient so that when in their custody they can do with it as they please. That’s like saying my mailman can read my mail before he drops it in my mailbox.
    I say thank goodness for the uproar on the internet and shame on Google, Microsoft and others for giving the government what should be private and protected communications. As someone who has championed internet privacy and security, I am astounded at your stand on this.

    • Kevin, it’s not that simple. My mailman sees my Dad getting multiple catalogs during every week. He gets boxes delivered most days of the week. He can see who sends them– and can infer what some of those products are. Even letters come with return addresses that are revealing. Some envelopes may have a particular odor. The point is that the mailman can compile quite a bit of data without ever opening up one package/letter. There is no expectation of privacy there. This is a very complex subject. I’m still shuffling through it. I’m not happy with the NSA, FISA courts, etc. But, I’m not sure where the lines need to be drawn

      • Catalogs and mass mailing flyers are not personal communications from one “individual” to another. We are talking e-mails here. I understand that if I make a purchase from Amazon that my preferences for books, music, movies etc. will be tracked. They will tailor that info to their sales model . So they know something about me. That’s very different from knowing about a personal communication from to another “individual”.

        • Kudos. Critical thinking is a habit that is learned and, when practiced, paves the way for civilized society and meaningful discourse amongst us all. The ideas you have expressed in this article echo what great thinkers throughout human history have averred and taught. Grateful for your taking the time to craft the editorial.

        • I am not sure about others’ situations but I know that I don’t pay Google a darned thing to host my e-mail account. I surely do not expect the provider of a service that is at no cost to me to provide the same level of security and protection that I expect from the provider of another e-mail account – the one for which I pay a monthly fee and can rely on spam blocking and filtering, secure encryption both ways, storage, etc. For junk and fun, there’s Google. For more important correspondence, one may purchase one’s own domain. From the inception of e-mail, users understood that if information was sensitive enough to warrant that much concern, it probably should be transmitted in non-ditigal fashion.

      • How would you feel if you learned that the post office was opening and reading your mail so they could decide what flyers to stuff in your mailbox? That is essentially what Google is doing. It’s one thing to glean enough information so that your mail gets delivered. It’s another thing entirely when the contents are mined for commercial or other purposes.

        • But. there is a difference. The United States Postal Service charges you the price of a stamp to send personal communication to another person. Google provides Gmail service including storage a no cost. (The cost is your agreement allow them to post advertisements that are based on their evaluation of your interests.) The use of Gmail is not a right . . . it is an agreement with Google.

          • I have always found it interesting what we will let people do to us for free just to get something for free…lol.

    • You are totally correct. Leo put together a ‘pile’ of words that at every turn totally evade the known facts. Google’s announcement was an atrocious capitulation .. a rejection of the very concept of ‘privacy’. Leo failed to mention one single core-issue in his very wordy but short-on-hard-information statement.
      For example, Google states that they intend to encrypt everything .. but with what, we ask???
      AES128 bit !!!! which is known to be breakable .. Google’s statements are so carefully worded that there are zero assurances that any privacy exists at all !!!
      Im amazed at the naive views most have expressed here .. views supporting Leo’s thinking.
      and i thank you for speaking up!

      • You forget that Google does not charge you anything and therefore does not owe you anything. You use Google at your own risk and have no rigth to make demands. If you don’t like their policies and procedures, feel free to switch to one of the many “pay for service” ISPs if you can find one that will guarantee privacy and security of your email.

  10. Leo, thanks so much for posting this. I have a few “friends” who think their doing everyone a big favor by spreading “manure” without any thought of verifying the truth or agenda what so ever. As you said “if its own the Internet it must be true mentality.” My philosophy is quite simple, “believe nothing you read and half of what you see” and be skeptical of the other half…Thanks again!

  11. In Ohio, we learned about “The War of Southern Resistance”. In Mississippi, you were taught about “The War of Northern Aggression”. They’re both the Civil War.

    Everything is told with an agenda.

  12. The hardest part of all of this is most (if not all) of us don’t have the time to adequately check out every story that interests us– much less every story of importance. So, I have come to depend on a few news outlets and/or a few websites that seem to at least try to keep their bias in check. There are some networks I’ve given up on because they are so blatantly dishonest that I know they are not worth my time. How can I know? I can watch a speech, news report, or other of which I have personal knowledge (as opposed to opinion). If they summarize waaaaay off from reality, I know I can’t trust them. The other outlets, I watch or listen to with a suspicious mind., is one of the trusted outlets.

  13. Leo,
    This is one, if not the best, articles published on any website. I fully agree with your reasoning behind this as well as the excellent way it was presented. I have been an internet user for over 35 years and learned the context presented here.

  14. You are quite right, Leo. I see this all the time on the list I moderate. It’s a small example of a much bigger problem. People who want to learn about dog nutrition and health and share their knowledge and experience are often prone to believe the most outrageous things because they read them on a site belonging to an Internet *authority*. Fortunately, the mods and more skeptical members are hardcases and demand, not one person’s opinion, but links to actual scientific research. Eventually, some learn. Some never do. I suppose some people realize the advantages of thinking for themselves and questioning what they read while others will always want others to do their thinking for them.

  15. I am really upset about all the money the NSA spent on PRISM when it could have just subcontracted the work out to Google, Drop Box, Face Book and Android apps. Especially that innocent Flashlight App. ;-)

    People have the misconception that Google is a technology company. Its sole purpose is to be a marketing company and we are the product it sells. It uses and develops technology to gather marketing data. The only thing giving users anonymity (not privacy) is a thing called ethics and that can be bypassed by writing a simple line of code, pressure from the stockholders or a warrant from the Government.

    The real question is If trusting our data to a marketing company is acceptable for the type of data we work with. Google does have a lot to offer and offers simple easy solutions to “people whose lives are just not that interesting”.

    The analogy is that the door to my house is unlocked and that I have nice ethical strangers coming in all the time but so far they have kept their hands in their pockets. Nothing has been stolen but it is still creepy to have an unlocked door and strangers able to come in.

  16. For me, the one negative aspect of this whole subject is that I have almost ‘skepticalized’ myself into anonymity. After my umpteenth, “I find that hard to believe,” comment, I find myself exiled from many of my ‘manure spreading’ conversationalists. However, for me it has been worth it.
    Keep on truckin’, Leo.. Your advice on all matters is appreciated.


  17. Thank you Leo for your excellent article.
    There is an old folk tale about a man who was chastised by his Rabbi for spreading gossip. The Rabbi wanted to teach the man a lesson. He told him to take a pillow full of feathers and cut it open. The Rabbi shook the pillow and let the feathers fly into the street. He then asked the man to collect the feathers – an impossible task. Such is the Internet – blogs, social networks, and email make is so easy to spread rumours and ruin the reputation and lives of people. Once the Send key is pressed there is no way to take it back. People should think long and hard before submitting or re-distributing articles that are untrue or malicious.

  18. I am somewhat less concerned by big government than by big corporation. Big government is actually not that brilliant. They do have some smart people working there and so forth, but they also do a lot of wasting time on actions that have no value. But a lot of the activities by big government has been directed by people in power, and who have access to power, who are influenced by big corporations and other interests who want to be able to control things. Fortunately, the masses are influenced by other interests and that kind of diffuses the plans of those who think they rule. The old Soviet Union was an example of how poorly a large government can be operated by stupid people, who happen to be in power.

    • Unfortunately, Big Government also sends swat teams to your door if your wife happens to google pressure cookers while the husband looks for a back pack (actual case). That particular swat team said that around 100 such raids are done each week. As our privacy gets eroded bit bit such actions will become more commonplace.

      • This is a PERFECT example of media mismanagement leading people to jump to completely false conclusions. In fact the Google searches did not cause the swat teams to be sent. There were additional things, at work if I recall correctly, that was the actual cause of the police action. Once again, manure was spread far and wide, and it’s almost impossible to clean up. (NOT blaming you – blaming the media that so widely jumped to conclusions and spread this misinformation far and wide.)

  19. My success getting other people to stop manure spreading has been zero, but I can stop it with me. I call this manure spreading “jumping to contusions.”

    There’s a parable about a fly that ate from a manure pile until he couldn’t eat any more. He then climbed onto a broom handle and jumped off, but was so heavy he crashed and died. The moral of the story: Don’t fly off the handle when you’re full of manure.

  20. What you are saying is use common sense. lol.
    Seems like there is a great shortage of it nowadays.
    Great article, might even inspire some people to think a little.

    What really makes me laugh is some of these same people that are so worried about Google or the Government spying on them will run their computers for six months with an expired anti virus program. Hmmmm, lol.

    • I believe you’re right about a shortage of common sense.
      When I want a laugh, I check out flat earther videos on youtube. Classic cases of too much ‘manure consumption’.
      Even the ancient Greeks were able to ascertain that the Earth was round through observation and mathematics.

  21. Google tried to justify their practice by saying that an executive assistant regularly opens and reads his/her boss’s mail and what they are doing is the same thing. That is incorrect. The executive assistant explicitly gave permission for that to happen. The executive did not give permission for the post office to do the same. Furthermore, allowing Google to scan your email in order to target you with ads is equivalent to allowing the post office to open your mail to decide what fliers to stuff in your mailbox. Of course, you pay the post office to process your mail while gmail is a free service so tanstaafl applies.

  22. Life is really Gray, nothing is an absolute. View points are so gray, the same 4 people can read something and get 4 different opinions on what they read. So, be Gray and Be Happy!!

    Thank you Leo for bringing us all back into reality.

  23. Thank you very much Leo.
    I have been preaching about the misinformation on the WEB for a very long time.
    It is wonderful to see an article that articulates the problem very nicely.
    I look forward to all of your emails

  24. WOW! So many responses – so little time to read them all. Still, replying is mostly an exercise in boosting one’s self esteem, so who cares if anyone reads them?

    I, too, loved your piece because I agree with it – such is the vanity of our minds.
    I know it wasn’t, but it could have been paraphrased from a book called The Joey God-Allah Virus which is about our first million years of human gullibility.

    Here’s the paragraph that strings to mind:
    Working in tandem, Madam Self Delusion and I can boost kids’ beliefs to dizzying heights. Together we can make any story seem positively enthralling, and set kids up for a lifetime of blind faith, even though what they read and hear is usually just strings of nice words sewn together with no supporting evidence at all. How else do you think Sharmah, Moses and the rest got everyone dancing to their tunes? How, for instance, can a land be made of milk and honey for goodness sake? What are the cows and bees supposed to eat? More milk and more honey? So where did it all come from in the first place? Sheesh! If the audience had given five seconds quiet thought to the words instead of the music they’d have quickly realized it was all a con. But they never did; and they never do because Madam Self Delusion whispers softly into their willing ears that everything is so much easier when someone else does their thinking for them. I sometimes wonder why people go to all the trouble of growing brains at all, but thank Random they do, otherwise I’d be out of a job.

    Good on you, Leo. You’re an island of sanity in a sea of loony tunes.

  25. I’d recommend a little research to add to this thread – specifically why not try reading (a) Evgeny Morozov’s ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, and (b) Jaron Lanier’s ‘Who Owns the Future?’. This will involve a little effort (about 550 pages altogether, and you may want to track through some of the references as well), but will give you a fine overview of the motives and drive behind some of the corporations that constitute what we tend to call ‘The Internet’. That will help when you consider the truth or falsity of what you come across in the news pages, why it’s there, and how it gets there. Remember, there’s no such thing as ‘The Internet’ – it’s not an independent artifact or a free non-governmental service, or an artificially intelligent superbeing – and mostly ‘it”s driven by commerce, so caveat emptor!

  26. Great article Leo. I for once do believe it 100%. :-)
    Alas, I also believe that you will be unable to convert many, expecially in the long term, which I will guess to be no longer than a week.
    Perhaps you can visit this topic again as in my opinion is almost as important as backing up.

  27. one of the problems with spreading the BS is that we don’t want to offend our friends by telling them they are full, of it.. |As for the History comment, it should have gone further.

    History is a chronicle of events that may or not have occurred, written by people who weren’t there.

  28. Great article, is it okay to share?
    What really cracks me up is when you can prove someone wrong by what they reposted on say Facebook, it will actually make them upset enough that they unfriend you. lol
    My mantra has always been, “If you don’t want someone besides the person to see what you have sent, then call them on the phone”. (Oh wait, they listen to phone conversations too, don’t they? I read that on the internet.)
    Face to face will always be best to keep things private.

  29. An outstanding article. If only every internet user could have the opportunity to read it, including those who have never heard of Leo.

  30. Leo,
    Your article could be summed up in a few words. Statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics.

    Great article. Too bad common sense is not more common.

  31. Great article and long time in coming! Posted it on FB page. NO ONE commented! My conclusion…they only comment on, or forward “manure.” Thanks so much for posting.

  32. Sadly I don’t think we encourage people to think. Ironically its the fast paced world of tweets and face books to tell us to move quickly without thinking about the consequences.
    Thanks Leo

  33. We Chinese has a very ancient proverb: “It is better to have no book than to believe every book.” We can substitute “internet” for “book”. On the other hand, why have book at all if I disbelieve every book? The safest policy is to read widely and think deeply. Never to have only a set of favorite authors and worship them.
    I often consulted the internet for information on health. My son warned me, “You may die of a misprint.” It is obvious that this had not happened, yet.

  34. Thank you for this well written article Leo. Only a few weeks ago I saw a widely circulated article (which I did not believe), which resulted in threats of violence. The article turned out (as I had suspected), to be completely untrue.

  35. Thornton Wilder said, “There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.” If you never eavesdrop, it’s tough to appreciate the value of scepticism.

  36. i often receive emails from contacts forwarding warnings about certain products. Before forwarding to my contacts, I check to see if it’s legit. It’s amazing how much crap there is out there.

    • I used to use Snopes a lot, but have changed even that. Your mileage may vary, but I have found that even Snopes has an agenda. They do have a tendency to lean to the left.

      • They’ve been repeatedly accused of leaning one way or another, and yet repeated independent investigations typically find that it’s just not true. My take is that it’s another case of the echo chamber at work.

        • Yeah, they’ve been accused of leaning every which way – likely by people who refuse to believe that the silly story they read on Facebook isn’t true. Obama wasn’t a member of the Black Panthers = obvious left wing bias. Trump’s hair isn’t the illegally imported pelt of a rare Andean guinea pig = obvious right wing bias.

          I’ve certainly never seen any evidence of Snopes being in the least bit politically biased.

  37. While the “ham dog” incident was quite amusing….

    …. it also served to prove an important point: namely, that some people are quick to believe even the most improbable stories. In the case of the “ham dog” story, that may not be too much of a problem; however, if it’s a story about, say, vaccines causing babies to be born with chimp-like faces or a story about measles being completely harmless, then it becomes much more of a problem. Some people will believe it and base their actions/inactions on that belief.

  38. Very true Leo
    About 20 years ago I met a very persuasive person [actually two of them – they were partners/spouses never really found out the truth!]
    His method of persuasion involved prefacing every porky pie with a long preamble included a lot of true facts, then after a couple of minutes of real stuff he would descend into the truth as he wanted everyone to believe it.
    As I eventually discovered, his version of the truth took a very sharp turn away from actual reality into the realm of myths and fairy stories about three quarters of the way through his preamble.
    It eventually turned out that he was totally discredited within this group, but I’m sure he continues this way as he was totally incorrigible.
    I learned from this to take statements on board and file them away with other FACTS I was actually sure of and eventually they would be accepted or dismissed as BS.
    I learned never to dismiss anyone or any statement offhand with some sort of proof or action on their part
    As you say, there is always some truth in every lie. I’ve found that the bigger the lie, the more truth there may be in it.
    Thank you for a good discourse and an amazing service

  39. “If it’s on the internet, it must be …” highly suspect. This is especially evident in this election cycle. From what I’ve seen, news outlets who support a candidate ie. most news outlets are publishing a preponderance of positive article touting their candidate, while printing articles on the infeasibility of the other candidates’ platform. Unfortunately, you can’t even trust the formerly dependable news sources, particularly in an election year.

    • “Unfortunately, you can’t even trust the formerly dependable news sources in an election year.” – I’m not sure that news sources have ever been particularly dependable – political bias in the media is certainly nothing new – or that they are any more or less reliable today than in the past. That said, at least now you don’t have to get the bulk of your news and information from a single newspaper; thanks to the internet, it’s very easy to look at stories from a wide variety of sources with a wide variety of perspectives.

  40. Concerning Google’s privacy breaches, I find it funny that people complain about that. Google’s business is essentially to sell you “free” products (of often great quality) in return for your privacy. Once you’ve bought Google’s products with your privacy, you shouldn’t complain about the fact that you don’t have your privacy any more, right ?
    If you upload a pornographic scene of yours in return for some money, you shouldn’t go and complain that intimate images of you are now seen by others.
    But you shouldn’t ignore the core business of Google either: it is obtaining private information.
    If you want to use Google mail and you don’t want Google to read the mail, then it is very simple: use mail encryption.

    • Yes, I laugh too at the people who complain about Google invading privacy, but then use Chrome to browse the internet, doing a Google search, getting directions from Google Maps, getting their mail through GMail, all the while doing this on their Google device. Gosh, what did we do before Google came along?

    • “Google’s business is essentially to sell you free products in return for your privacy.” – Indeed. And it’s not something Google is sneaky about: on the contrary, the company (mostly) makes it very clear about how data is collected and used. The fact is that, even if we do bitch and boohoo about it, we’d rather give up some privacy rather than have to part with our cold, hard cash to pay for things. I mean, who wants to have to pony up $0.10 per search, $0.10 per email and $100 for the latest Android (or Windows) upgrade? No, we want those things to be “free.”

      The real question is: just how much of our privacy are we willing to give up in exchange for no-cost services?

      • Much of the privacy issue debate lands in the manure category for me. We don’t have some inborn right to privacy in a general way. When we lived in small villages and tribes everyone knew what everyone else was doing naturally. Nobody worried about privacy. They just lived their lives. Google is not selling free products in return for our privacy. They are simply using their collected data to deliver us targeted advertisements. They get paid for the advertisements. What we buy, what we don’t buy, and how paranoid we want to get over that is our own personal choice. No one is forced to use a computer. There are still plenty of books, magazines, newspapers and television available. Don’t do nasty or illegal stuff on a computer. Just turn the computer off and relax if you can’t understand it.

        • To take this a little further, I’ll add that most people have little understanding about the extent to which they’re tracked. You’ve got companies collecting social data and aggregating it with financial information, purchase history records obtained via customer loyalty programs as well as numerous other data points/sources (Google: data brokers). You’ve got companies tracking you across whatever devices you use, irrespective of your cookie/privacy/telemetry settings (Google: probabilistic cross-device tracking). You’ve got companies tracking you in a whole bunch of other ways – some overt, some covert. And all of this happens in what is very much a legal grey area with little legislative control or oversight. You’ve got no idea which companies track you, no idea what data they hold about you, no control what they do with that data and no ability to correct inaccuracies.

          Currently, this tracking is predominantly used for the purpose of serving up targeted advertising, which probably isn’t too much of a problem is many peoples’ eyes (mine included). However, it can be used for other purposes too. As I said, online retailers already use demographics/profiles in order to adjust prices on a per-customer basis (the price you see may not be the same as the price that I see). Target used purchase history – of things like calcium, magnesium, unscented moisturizers and charcoal-flavored ice cream – to work out which customers were pregnant (Google: Target pregnancy). How much longer before picking up a friend’s anti-cancer meds – and putting it on your CVS loyalty card – starts affecting your life insurance premiums? There have even been instances of data brokers selling information to criminals who subsequently used it to fraudulently withdraw millions of dollars from peoples’ bank accounts (Google: FTC vs LeapLab).

          As I said, privacy is something we need to start paying more attention to.

        • I’ll add too that it’s not all doom and gloom. Data collection/big data has the potential to be enormously beneficial. Never before have we had access to so much data about people on such a massive scale, and that data can certainly be put to good use. For example, aggregating the data from fitness tracking devices – such as Fitbits – with social and socioeconomic data pulled from other sources could provide us with an unprecedented level of insight into how a wide range of issues affect our health and wellness.

          The bottom line is that pretty much every aspect of our lives is recorded in a database somewhere: where we shop, what we buy, how much we exercise, what our heart rates are, how many flights of stairs we climb in a day, how much money we have, how much we owe, who we’re friends with, what we read, what we search for, etc., etc., etc. And all of that data is subject to nebulous privacy policy policies – that companies can change without notice – and is subject to be sold, traded and aggregated, either in anonymized or non-anonymized form. We need to start thinking about how we want that data to be used, who we want to be able to access it and put a proper legislative framework in place to ensure that it isn’t misused.

          As Spider-Man once said, “With big data comes big responsibility” (okay, maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s nonetheless true).

  41. I noticed this tactic: Politicians make statements and use a story in media as ‘proof’. This media outlet – not politician – is now taking all responsibility for story being accurate. However, this media outlet is often a small, obscure publication, often only on internet, and with no reputation to protect. Sometimes it is only a blog. This story could have been easily ‘planted’ – just to quote and ‘echo’ it for own agenda, and have someone else take responsibility when story proven false.

      • While not directly related to journalistic accuracy, search engine bias/neutrality is an interesting and somewhat disconcerting subject. Google et al directly control our access to information – or, at least, how that information is prioritized/ranked. And those rankings could, theoretically, be used to influence our political perceptions and preferences, in the exact same way that they influence our spending habits (which is why US companies spend $20+ billion per year on SEO).

        Google or Bing could, for example, up the ranking for pro-Republican/anti-Democratic content and drop the ranking for anti-Republican/pro-Democratic content. The result would be that more people would see pro-Republican/anti-Democratic material while fewer would see anti-Republican/pro-Democratic material. And such manipulation would undoubtedly have an impact on our perceptions and, in some cases, our actions. A study published in PNAS claimed, “that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation.”

        Additionally, news aggregation websites and social aggregators represent another mechanism via which manipulation could occur. Rather than obtaining news from a single source, people are increasingly using aggregators such as Google News, Bing News, Reddit and Facebook – and the items that they’re most likely to look at are those which the aggregators decide are Top/Trending/Headline. When combined with feed placement/rank, this provides the aggregators with considerable influence over the amount of attention/views an item does or does not get.

        To be clear, I’m not suggesting that search companies have ever manipulated search rank in order to influence political outcomes, or that they would ever do so. But the fact is that they could. And it’d likely work. And we may never even realize that we’d been gamed.

        The bottom line is that a very small number of companies have an enormous amount of control over our access to information and, consequently, the ability to influence our attitudes, perceptions and, ultimately, our actions. And that’s probably not a good thing.

  42. As we can see from some from Team Leo, I think it’s safe to assume that people in the internet industry in general don’t think of privacy as their priority. It doesn’t stop there – teamed up with media, they created this massive data source and they are misusing and abusing what they’ve collected. I hope no one is surprised. It will never become a real issue because who makes an issue big? Media. And what would happen if media is “one of them” ? What if media has been operating like the company that Rupert Murdoch owned?

    It’s not like little loss of privacy we (or I) give up in exchange of internet search. It’s only the tip of the big iceberg. There’s much more sacrifice of privacy than you can possibly imagine. And the internet people, who spend lots of time online writing this “manure”, are pros at making people believe it’s not that dangerous.

    • I’m not going to vouch for everything in this article, but the basic concepts about 5G are correct and fact. One of the transmission bands for 5G is in the microwave range, there are 5G satellites being launched, Space-X has already launched over 400 satellites, and for the highest frequency 5G band they will need lots of closely spaced antennas (on the ground). Maybe no one has proven yet that 5G frequencies will fry you as you sit watching TV, but no one has proven that there won’t be any long term effects either. But you shouldn’t worry about progress in 5G, because it will happen even if it requires spraying radioactive waste all over the earth.

      • Only responding to say that I vehemently disagree with the 5G conspiracy manure. Almost deleted the comment for fear of inadvertently spreading it, decided instead to post my disagreement. WILL absolutely delete further comments on the topic.

  43. This article was a very interesting diversion Leo. I see this issue across the political spectrum, people are so personally integrated with their ideological/political beliefs that they have a very low threshold for posting “news” that is clearly biased, or just wrong. The ends justify the means and everybody loses. Keep up the good work.

  44. A fine article, Leo and good advice …. as far as it goes.

    I’m an “old school” print journalist, former reporter and AP wire editor for a Midwestern daily newspaper. I cannot adequately express how heart-breaking it is to see the major media outlets do exactly what you outline as “virtual manure spreading.” You allude to the not so distant past when the reporters and the new media in general could be counted on to fact-check and multiple source every news story. Sadly, that hasn’t been true for at least 15-20 years.

    And, of course, the almost universal access to the internet, and peoples’ irresponsible spreading of such unverified, often single-sourced “information” has taken such “manure spreading” to heretofore unimaginable levels of excess.

    A very basic principle that seems to have gotten lost in the outrageously extreme of opinions today, is that in our American democracy, and in our civilized culture, we are all allowed to have valid differences of opinion. It’s perfectly OK to not agree. Just because we disagree with someone or some group or some expressed opinion or philosophy does NOT mean we have to attack the person or group that has a varying opinion! When and Why did it become “OK”to do so? It’s not “OK”; it’s not rational; it’s not constructive or helpful; and it is divisive and destructive. It’s that simple.

    As to your advice – “as far as it goes”: The very important underlying question remains: In today’s world where can anyone find reliable, verified, multi-sourced facts about any question or issue? The horribly disturbing “truth” is — you can’t do so.

    What are we to do?

    In an internet and social media driven “information world” it may be almost impossible to determine the facts or the truth. About all any of us can do it work ardently to NOT be one of the”manure spreader.”

    Thanks again for an excellent article. Let’s all keep striving, as much as we can, to help “clean out the barn” and practice civility.

  45. Hey Leo,
    I publish for older people and want to make a couple suggestions for you that may apply to more than just my demographic.

    Your article has much valuable content in it but…there are a number of things I would criticize, things that are applicable to all Internet users/readers.

    1. Keep you pieces focused, succinct and concise. Avoid rambling, repeated ideas/words, and weaving. You have a tendency to do that as you try to consolidate and reinforce your message. Good try Leo, but often, less is more.
    2. Since you were writing about veracity, validity and authenticity in the news, why did not suggest that readers might consider using sites such as SNOPES and POLITIFACT to verify the validity of what they are reading. Additionally, I would have said that readers who want to be certain what they are reading has validity and authenticity, should consider more than one reputable source. So instead of relying saying on just the Washington Post, or the New York Times, why not consider adding 3 or 4 other news sources in which they have confidence to use as confirmation sources for what they are reading.

    The last word….your posts have a lot of value in them Leo. You serve a just cause. But respect others’ time as much as you want your own respected and keep your articles on point and to the point which still can be done in your personable and personal style.

    Best in all your endeavours,


  46. I run into this problem all of the time. I have family mermbers constantly send me emails that set off my “is it really true” warning alarms all of the time. I check them and MOST times they are not. I have politely and, hopefully diplomatically, suggested that they check everything first before they send it. They seem to not follow my advice. It goes in one ear and out the other.
    The schools used to teach critical thinking but I am not sure that they are doing so anymore. If they are trying too, they have missed the mark. This is witnessed by the latest historical inaccuracies being hailed by our education system concerning our country being founded on slavery and oppression. Although there was definitely slavery and oppression, there was also hard work and sacrifice on behalf of our countries founders. The founders were not perfect (who human is or has been except one) but they followed a vision of what they believed could improve the human condition.
    Thank you Leo for writing this. I hope it spreads around the world. You must have put a lot of thought into it in order to write the words necessary for such a time as this. I also hope the words that you have written are headed. I do not see a “side” at all in your writing. It is succint, accurate, and to the point.

  47. I would add, on this topic, the books Shadow Network by Anne Nelson and Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein are very educational, extensively researched/sourced, easy to assimilate and … did I mention very highly educational …

  48. Considering that this article (possibly in a slightly-different form?) was posted seven years ago, based on the dates of the earliest comments upon it, it is discouraging just how little anything has changed. In fact, things have, IMHO, gotten much worse. Ancient memes, mostly false or only partly true, on arcane topics, still get posted and spread around as if they were newly written. People, being Human, do not seem to learn from either the past (sorry about that, George Santayana) or their own mistakes. And what is truly unfortunate about this article is that Leo is pretty-much preaching to the choir. But keep preaching, sir! Even the choir needs a good sermon, now and then.

    Oh, and to PT: public schools in the USA do not, in general, teach critical thinking. A few specialty ones do, but they can be quite expensive. Even at the college level, courses such as Logic are electives, and not stressed as useful to most fields. Certainly they are rarely required. I was lucky to have had an interest in it in my youth, as well as in the rest of the old Trivium (Grammar and Rhetoric), and so took some classes in college. I’m in a very tiny percentage of the population who took these classes purely because I wanted to.

  49. My sentiments exactly. I only believe a quarter (if that) of what I hear/read on the Internet. Once they start with details then I start to tune out. In your Google example, I heard the outcry and did a bit of research. I find I’m quite comfortable with what Google knows about me. There is so far nothing actually personal in what they have collected. Heck, my local grocery store has more personal knowledge of me than Google. Data collecting had been going on since the first two humans interacted long ago. Sure, it’s easier today, and a bit more detailed, but I find on the web it helps me get the results I need and weeds out the fluff if Google knows my search pattern/history. Besides, at my age, I’m not into the naughty stuff so whatever I search for I can share with my grandkids. Yes , I’m making a judgement, but I’ll bet my worn out slippers that if you check the search history of the loudest complainers you’ll find they have stuff to hide. Believe me it’s human nature. It’s as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning.

  50. Thanks to all “smart people”! I didn’t even think about my reply before I replied. No, there’s still hope. For people that think! Nothing is “free.” Thanks, Leo. I’ve learned a lot from your newsletter. Even my email address is an oxymoron. Too much information, too fast. Think before you hit the send button, especially on social media. It could be hurtful, untrue, or even… show your ignorance! The preceding was a fine example. Wait! Did I read that somewhere?


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.