Winston Churchill once stated:

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

This statement has never been truer than today. Thanks to the internet, a lie can be propagated around the world before the truth is ever discovered.

While many celebrate the fact that the internet now makes it possible for anyone with access to the internet to publish “information,” I frequently lament the fact that so much of what is being published is uninformed at best and downright false at worst.

Given that significant numbers of people are incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff, the internet has become, in my opinion, the most effective vehicle for the dissemination of “misinformation” and outright “disinformation.”

A small example of this was found in a recent article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Entitled “Unpaid interns frequently lead to legal pitfalls,” it described how Kelly McCausey, a small business owner in Portland, Michigan, recruited an unpaid intern “who wanted to learn Internet marketing and podcast production“.

This unpaid intern received 10 weeks of training and unpaid work that averaged “10 to 20 hours a week.” After the 10 week period, the intern continued on through the summer without pay.

Thrilled with the results of the arrangement, McCausey wrote an ebook called “Profiting from Internships” that is sold on her website.

The pitch is compelling:

“Discover a powerful business building tool that once tried, you’ll be wanting to do over and over again!”

“Can you imagine…motivated individuals offering themselves up to you as a virtual servant for a period of time in exchange for your training and feedback?”

Not surprisingly, the pitch is too good to be true.

Under United States federal and state law, what McCausey’s ebook advises is likely to be illegal for most businesses.

Unpaid internships need to meet six criteria to be legal in the United States. Amongst them are:

  • The internship must primarily benefit the intern.
  • The employer cannot have the intern performing work that a paid employee would otherwise perform and the intern must be closely supervised.
  • The employer cannot profit from the intern’s work.

Jay Zweig is a labor attorney and he provided the following response to McCausey’s advice:

“All it takes is one disgruntled intern, or their parent or spouse or friend, to call the U.S. Department of Labor, and the company who follows this type of exploitative advice is toast.”

So what did McCausey have to say?

“It never once occurred to me that I needed to worry about labor laws.”

Of course, this didn’t stop her from writing her ebook and hawking it at the low price of $27. Fortunately, there’s a 30-day money back guarantee (really convenient in the case that legal action is pursued against you).

While this is but a small example of misinformation on the internet, it highlights just how easily this misinformation can be published by individuals who lack the knowledge, expertise and experience to provide credible information.

Oftentimes, as in the case of “Profiting from Internships,” their misinformation is packaged commercially and in a professional fashion, luring less discriminating individuals to believe it valid.

In my opinion, the internet’s biggest problem is that the amount of poor, less-than-credible information being published through it appears to be growing exponentially faster than the amount of quality, credible information.

I believe this is a direct result of several things:

  • The endless supply of easy-to-use publishing tools that make it easy for anybody with a thought to broadcast it to the world. From blogs to tweets, everybody truly does have access to the 21st century equivalent of a printing press.
  • A society that increasingly places emphasizes quantity over quality. In such a society, there is less incentive for those who publish to publish quality content.
  • The inability of an increasing number of individuals to apply critical thinking skills and intelligent analysis to the evaluation of content they come across.

So what is to be done?

Frankly, I’m not sure anything can be done. I don’t see the current internet publishing trends dissipating anytime soon. And so long as uninformed individuals have access to the internet, there will be no shortage of misinformation masquerading as fact.

Yet I do think that at some point, more individuals will place renewed emphasis on quality content.

If one follows the money, there are already signs that the allure of the “user-generated content revolution” is waning.

I see this in my own experience. Although I’ve always preferred books, newspapers and magazines to blogs, the abundance of rubbish circulating in what has become a “post-first-and-check-facts-later” blogosphere has reduced the number of “blogs” I read on a daily or bi-daily basis to two.

While there are certainly good blogs out there, I’ve simply decided that the salient information I need and enjoy reading can be found through “traditional” sources.

Based on what people I know are telling me, I suspect that my experience is not entirely uncommon.

While the internet’s very nature will always permit some level of misinformation and disinformation, I can only hope that consumer and advertiser preference will eventually mitigate some of its effects.

In the meantime, the internet’s biggest problem will continue to be, in my opinion, an increasingly big problem for society, especially as the generations which have been raised by the internet grow up.