A famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon shows one dog saying to another: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." There's a message in that joke, even today. We are inundated with information from sources we know nothing about. So though it is highly unlikely that the blog you're reading was written by a dog, it is more than possible that it was penned by someone with a personal or political agenda.
Over the past 20 years, the media have undergone a massive evolution with the introduction of new technologies. From cable television with its nonstop 24-hour news networks to the Internet, we've been inundated with an ever-increasing number of "news" sources, some more credible than others.
For whatever reason, when the written word appears on computer screens, readers check their critical thinking at the keyboard. We teach our kids to be wary of "friends" who appear online, while we willingly believe "facts" written by people about whom we know nothing.
Online bloggers have become arbiters of truth. These random commentators, who often write nothing more than unsubstantiated remarks and nearly libelous personal observations, have access to a wide public forum without any context.
When I was a young editor working at The Jerusalem Post, the legendary Alex Berlyne would walk around the newsroom repeating his golden rule of reporting: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Confirmation by a second source was the rule, not the exception. Journalists saw themselves as servants of the third estate committed to unraveling the truth.
No such standards apply to bloggers or to many columnists now appearing in your daily paper. Once segregated onto pages labeled opinion, these essays have become an inexpensive source of page filler. News sites link to a range of writers under the banner that all opinions are equal without vetting credentials. And we, as consumers, rarely check the background of the writer, trusting that someone has done the legwork. But it's not necessarily so.
Recent events around the world remind us that in the open marketplace of ideas, the loudest voices are often those with the most extreme views. Without the moderating influence of editorial accountability, the blogosphere has become a place of black and white, with no room for the gray tones of complexity.
This is particularly true in Israel, where bloggers are taking a cue from the country's politicians and turning up the volume of the debate. Labels such as anti-Zionist and fascist are the new grenades tossed into a battle of words that has turned cyberspace into a dangerous place. Often, it turns out that those at the forefront of the battle are motivated by their own agenda, positioning extreme ideologies as objective reality. Scratch a blogger behind the ears and you may discover his political affiliations are not what you expected.
This is where we have to learn to be wary. We have to sniff out the reliable commentators, research our sources carefully and become our own investigative journalists.
So the next time you read a blog citing seemingly shocking "facts," check the source. You may just find that the writer's name is Rover.
Faye Bittker is a former journalist who now works in media relations at an Israeli university.