by Sarah Squires, editor-in-chief, Winona Post
It might have been almost a decade ago, and I was leaning over the shoulder of a student and a volunteer instructor at an after-school session. The student was showing something she’d found online, a series of photos depicting a “cabbit.”
“It’s half rabbit, half cat,” she told her after-school person. I squinted at the images of cat faces with floppy ears, of kitty bodies hopped up on rabbit haunches. “Wow,” said the volunteer.
I stepped back for a moment. As a reporter, I’d been taught to be a “fly on the wall,” and not interject. And I’m not a scientist, but still. Cats and rabbits do not make babies, no matter how friendly they might ever be in real life. They are far removed on the spectrum of family, genus, species that I learned in science class. As the student and volunteer chatted about this fake, photoshopped animal, as the student said she wanted one and the volunteer agreed, I paused. Before I left, I whispered in the instructor’s ear: “That’s fake.”
That was during the era when the internet and technology was really taking hold of education, and all of us older people who were used to the reliable dewey decimal system were a bit worried about it. We all proclaimed that we were welcoming of this new technology, but it better come with some education; it must come alongside some instruction about how to really get to the truth, because the world wide web (kids, we used to call it that, that’s what the www stands for) doesn’t always tell you the whole story.
As it turns out, studies show that those of us who didn’t grow up with the internet are the more vulnerable ones, who don’t always check the sources, who are lured into believing any article that has a website we can share on social media. The kids, nowadays, are often better able to navigate this than we can.
I remember the early internet as a child, being introduced to it by librarians who showed us it in its infancy when I was in seventh grade, the mid-90s. They asked us to pick a topic — we chose zebras, having no mythical animals to choose from — and they printed off several hundred pages of information on those old, rip-apart printer sheets with dot holes punched in the sides. They told us we could get any information we wanted.
That is not true today. That world wide web is full of not just obvious misleading things, but clever falsehoods, ones that are aimed at our deepest political beliefs and our weakest wants. There are people out there who take pleasure just in getting likes and shares, regardless of the topic, regardless of the outcome. The internet is full of lies, and most kids these days are smarter than we are in deciphering it.
I pride myself in being cautious about the internet, and being careful about researching things before I share them. It’s often pretty easy — honestly, just google it, and look a bit, and if it’s an outlandish story and the only ones reporting it are strange sites called “holistichappygirl.com” or “patriotfindsthetruthinaminute.com,” then you are probably looking at some cabbit in the wild.
But last week I totally biffed it. I allowed a letter to the editor to run, without, in the very least, an editor’s note, questioning climate change science. It attempted to cite scientific journals, but it was based on some bogus, cabbit-type internet sources.
I will not spend any words on excuses for this failure on my part, because that’s all they’d be — excuses. What I will do is be more dedicated in ensuring the truth is on every page, opinion or otherwise.
And I will continue to invite your opinions to this section, with a word of caution: the facts you cite will be diligently checked. All opinions are welcome here, but be sure you join me in making sure they are based on reality.
Cabbits are not welcome here.