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College of Information and Communications

January 2017

From the Dean . . .

Hacks, fake news and bicycle messengers

Pick any point on the information spectrum. Your daily news. Your Facebook page. The book you downloaded from the library. Your medical records. Your phone bill. Everything on your phone, for that matter. The obscure link someone vaguely familiar to you included in an email.

What do you really know about this information? 

When our kids come home, even Gen Z post-millennials, we still ask where they’ve been. Hard to ask where all our digital streams have been.

We start 2017 amid alarms of Russian hacking of our 2016 election or the North American power grid. One the Russians probably did, the other they probably didn’t. Yet both are plausible in an era of ultra technology we barely understand and a teetering global sense of security. We fear we’ve been duped by fake news. There’s always been fake news. Sometimes, it is propaganda masquerading as news. I covered the Cold War. Trust me. Sometimes, it is rogue reporters making up stories or quotes, even their expense accounts. Don’t trust them.

 If you grew up in the northeast, you may remember Sy and Marcy Syms, owners of an off-price retail clothing chain. The chain went bankrupt but left us with its advertising slogan. “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

How do you be an educated consumer in this day and age? 

Start with the basics. Where does our information come from? That’s both a technical and tactical question. I’m not technically skilled enough to follow the digits. I hope I’m savvy enough to perceive when the dots of a story don’t connect. Ronald Reagan’s frequent iteration of a Russian proverb, “trust, but verify,” may need an updated sequence. Verify, then trust. Journalists know that a good relationship with a source is built on two-way trust.

I’ve long been wary of cookies and those subtle pleas to allow your location to be tracked. As if we weren’t all being tracked one way or another. Donald Trump reportedly eschews email. Trump suggests a bicycle messenger is the sure and secure way to send data and documents. I haven’t seen bicycle sales go up, and messengers are a small voting bloc.

And this from the guy who’s addicted to middle-of-the-night Twitter cascades. I’m not opposed to a presidential idiosyncrasy now and then. George H. W. Bush declared, “I’m president. And I don’t have to eat broccoli.” 

Today’s reality is that few, if any, of us — especially in our information and communication professions — are going to put down the devices that inform, entertain and connect us. We had better, though, understand that there are inherent risks. Misinformation, disinformation and disruption are at the top of the queue.

New Year’s resolution: Be an educated consumer. Maybe, get a bike.

Welcome to 2017.


Charles Bierbauer

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