Tim Berners-Lee and media misrepresentation

By AnthonyLast updated: Saturday, November 4, 2006 • Save & Share4 Comments

Like Norm, when I read the BBC and Guardian reports of Tim Berners-Lee’s comments about the internet I was somewhat surprised.

In the Guardian:

He singles out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continuing development of the web, because of the risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and uncheckable information.

At the BBC:

The British developer of the world wide web says he is worried about the way it could be used to spread misinformation and “undemocratic forces”.
“Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web.

My first thought was to write a spoof about the inventor of the printing press, worrying that people might now to able to print pamphlets and news letters more quickly – and the worry that this could be used to spread information and help “undemocratic” forces. Could the inventor of the internet really be suggesting that the free exchange of information was a danger to democracy?

Personally, I think the internet is a force for democracy. That’s why totalitarian regimes like China, Iran and North Korea control the internet for their population. It is also fairly good at self-regulation. There is no shortage of other people willing to check out your facts, even if you don’t bother. And if blogs are suspect, then so is the mainstream media. As Norm states:

much of what bloggers comment on, much of their information, comes straight from the press and other mainstream media. So, are these media also a ‘difficult area’?

Well, the short answer is yes. They are. Every week, a colleague and I find mistakes in the mainstream media about our particular specialised area, or failure of the media to disclose competing interests of lobby groups cited in articles uncritically. They even get the fundamental science wrong. Awareness of this has made me more skeptical of areas I am less familiar with.

As another example, it is indicative of the pervasive nature of the problem that Tim Berners-Lee is now protesting on his blog about being misrepresented by the BBC and Guardian, in a blog post entitled Blogging in great:

reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don’t just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there.
A great example of course is the blogging world. Blogs provide a gently evolving network of pointers of interest.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, alas, my attempt to explain this was turned upside down into a “blogging is one of the biggest perils” message. Sigh. I think they took their lead from an unfortunate BBC article, which for some reason stressed concerns about the web rather than excitement, failure modes rather than opportunities. (This happens, because when you launch a Web Science Research Initiative, people ask what the opportunities are and what the dangers are for the future. And some editors are tempted to just edit out the opportunities and headline the fears to get the eyeballs, which is old and boring newspaper practice. We expect better from the Guardian and BBC, generally very reputable sources)
And, fortunately, we have blogs. We can publish what we actually think, even when misreported.

Filed in Internet, Media

4 Responses to “Tim Berners-Lee and media misrepresentation”

Comment from Simon
Time 4/11/2006 at 8:03 am

Aargh! Anthony, you’ve done it too! Tim Berners-Lee is not “the inventor of the internet”, he invented the world wide web. Internet = communication infrastructure, www = one way of passing information across the internet. It’s like confusing the guy who invented the printing press with the guy who invented language. John Humphrys made this mistake yesterday on the Today program, then compounded it by twice trying to explain himself and screwing up both times! Don’t be a Humphrys!

Comment from Anthony
Time 4/11/2006 at 2:58 pm


That said, what an excellent example of blog self-regulation and fact-checking in action.

Thanks Simon.

Comment from Nick
Time 4/11/2006 at 3:05 pm

It wasn’t Humphrys who made the initial mistake I heard on Today, it was his female colleague reading the news. She said TBL was the inventor of the internet. Humphrys, reporting that a horde of listeners had emailed in to correct this, then said something like “for the record, Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the world wide web” before correcting himself (probably with someone in his ear prompting him).

Comment from KaneCitizen
Time 8/11/2006 at 12:35 am

Hi – Seems like the writer of the Guradian article picked up on our comments.