First Click: The internet's imperfect peer review system

May 3rd, 2016


The xkcd comic where someone’s wrong on the internet is required reading for anyone trying to understand the global communications network we’ve created. It depicts a burning compulsion toward truth and correction of wrongs — something that manifested itself on Monday when Australian Craig Wright claimed to be the enigmatic Bitcoin inventor. Immediately upon his announcement, the internet stirred into full-on Debunking Mode.

Now, I’m not here to celebrate rabid mobs of online agitators motivated by the desire to disprove a person’s claims in order to see him humiliated. But the skeptical — alright, cynical — attitude that you’ll find on Hacker News and Reddit is actually a constructive force when dealing with major factual claims such as Wright’s. In the morning, the BBC ran Wright’s story as a definitively proven fact. By the afternoon, The Economist was raising substantial doubt about Wright’s claims after finding a note on Reddit purporting to invalidate his evidence.

A scientific paper is only given credence after it undergoes peer review, and on the internet bold claims are subjected to a similar trial by fire on a global scale. Whereas before the internet experts would have needed the attention of mass media companies in order to point out the weaknesses in Wright’s announcement, today their insight can be quickly and widely disseminated through the amplifying forces of the web. It’s an unstructured form of public peer review.

We’re all familiar with the negative aspects of amateur sleuthing, which has shown itself unreliable and sometimes even dangerous when having to establish facts rather than disprove them. There’s no better example of this than the misidentification of the Boston bomber back in 2013. But when it’s channelled correctly, the eagerness to reveal falsehoods functions as a self-organizing, spontaneous social good.

Whether Craig Wright is indeed the real Satoshi Nakamoto, mythical Bitcoin originator and geek god in waiting, is something that may never be conclusively proven. But if there’s a way to disprove it, we can trust the hordes of eager debunkers to dig it up.

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