Remember the “telephone” game? Or maybe you called it “grapevine” back in the day? The game where one person starts with a phrase, tells it to the next person, and then he/she repeats it to the next person, and so on all the way down the line. And do you recall how almost inevitably the original phrase or message was corrupted once it reached the end of the line?
So why all this reminiscing of a childhood game? Well, “grapevine” or whatever you want to call it embodies a phenomenon that demonstrates some of the inherent pitfalls of human communication and our ability to recall accurately information we have heard, read, or seen. A prime example of this phenomenon is summarized in this article from Time Magazine: “After bin Laden’s Death, (Mostly) Fake MLK Quote Goes Viral”. What strikes me as most important about this example, and the game itself, is that despite honest intentions by all parties to communicate accurately the original message in its entirety, the more it is filtered, the more likely the message is to be corrupted and shaped by those who pass it on. Also apparent in this case is our willingness to attribute comments to a particular author, in part b/c they sound or feel like something the author would say. And might I add a third takeway, which is that the author of the original Facebook quote did not make it clear where her opinions ended, and where the quoted materials began. One would not expect such precision from a Facebook profile update, and by no means am I faulting the author of the Facebook post. But change scenarios, and think about such an occurence in a work place or academic setting. Such confusion would be very undesirable.
So beware of the telephone game as it applies to information on the internet. There is a reason why your instructors ask, or even require you to use primary sources or empirical research articles. These source types represent the origin of the information, the start of the telephone line. As a student researcher you want to seek out the original source, which in part allows you to contextualize and interpret the information on your own, without having to rely on others. Thankfully, in the digital age, it is easier than ever to trace back the flow of information, to work your way back up to the start of the telephone line. A good strategy is to use the list of references at the end of an academic journal article to go back and retrieve the original research publications.