Years ago, on the noire television series “Twin Peaks,” there was a recurring statement that, “The owls are not what they seem.” There were plenty of owls cropping up in episodes of the show, often at critical times, and they always looked and sounded like owls. But still, plenty of the show’s characters repeated the warning.
Here’s a different take on that concept, this time on the Internet — the experts are not what they seem.
Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the end of a very long hunt. For three years, investment firm Goldman Sachs has been hunting for a mole.
The mole was the Goldman employee behind the Twitter account @GSElevator, which purported to reveal what Goldman Sachs employees were talking about on the company’s elevators. Some of it was choice: tidbits like, “I never give money to homeless people. I can’t reward failure in good conscience” and “I could watch fat people getting out of cars all day.”
More than 600,000 people followed the Twitter account, a number that certainly helped its creator garner a six-figure book deal based on the tweets.
Turns out, though, that the “overheard comments” weren’t exactly word for word, and they certainly weren’t overheard on Goldman Sachs elevators. Their creator is a 34-year-old former money-market employer named John Lefevre — he hasn’t worked for the company, but he has worked for Citigroup, so presumably, he’d know the ethical turf involved. He doesn’t live in New York — he lives in Texas. And he knows just how to work Twitter’s 140-character genre. You don’t wind up with 600,000 followers by being unconvincing.
The whole episode, however, reinforces a valuable lesson about the Internet, and one that people often seem willing to ignore: the quality of the vast acreage of information it supplies is directly related to the quality, skill and knowledge of the people who post it. You will occasionally see postings, for example, that the Holyrood generating station is something like the eighth largest polluter in the world. Now, Holyrood does pollute, but the numbers are patently, obviously false. The Holyrood generating station, in a 2010 Environment Canada pollution rating, was 82nd in Canada — with some sites in Alberta clocking in at over 20 times Holyrood’s emissions. And that’s just Canada — add just China into the mix, and Holyrood isn’t even a blip on the pollution map. Heck, Holyrood isn’t even the eighth-largest polluter in the Atlantic provinces; it’s 13th.
And that’s just one kind of questionable data. Newfoundland Power has been trying to deal with a handwritten, photographed note that suggests that, during the blackout, it lowered the amperage of power being delivered and basically defrauded homeowners: the utility has flatly denied the problem, but the endless sharing of that most trustworthy unsigned handwritten note goes on.
People can set up shop as their own sort of judge, jury and execution, decrying the political leanings of public figures and media pundits, all from that most-trustworthy of stages, the anonymous handle.
All of this is a roundabout way of pointing out — again — that, often, the owls are not what they seem. And that when you’re collecting facts, the sources matter, too.