Smart About Money: Can you trust random people giving advice online?

Nick Maffeo

Recently a gentleman who writes about the history of the governors of South Dakota got curious about what the latest internet sensation – ChatGPT – might say about the oldest and youngest governors of South Dakota.

Tony Venhuizen of the SoDak Governors blog published what he got back from ChatGPT regarding South Dakota’s youngest governor, Crawford H. Taylor. ChatGPT wrote about when Taylor was born (1915), the years he served (1949-1951) and his nickname (Chet). ChatGPT even provided a portrait of Governor Taylor.

The only problem? The actual youngest Governor of South Dakota was apparently a man named Richard Kneip. According to Tony Venhuizen, there is no evidence in all of South Dakota politics that such a person as Crawford H. Taylor ever existed.

No one knows why ChatGPT would be making stuff up. It’s a serious mystery. But then, there is a lot of “made up” stuff on the internet.

Clickbait culture is a big part of the problem. Recently, searching for You-Tubes on some financial issues, I came across something very odd. Several different “influencers” were claiming expertise on the very same topic and using the exact same wording in their videos.

It made no sense – did one of them have the actual expertise and the others were clickbait copycats? It isn’t quite clear what the game was there. But it was easy to sense that something seemed wrong.

How can you trust that information you see on the internet is true and accurate? The reality right now is that you just can’t. The more important a topic is for you – especially if it’s about money or health – the more cautious and skeptical you have to be. Does a random stranger making claims actually have the experience or the qualifications to back up what they’re saying? Are they being straightforward about the pitfalls and the problems of what they’re advocating? Many times on the internet, it’s going to be impossible to know for sure.

There are people online who are like ChatGPT. Sometimes they’re just making things up or they innocently got it wrong. When it’s obviously entertainment, that’s one thing. Like the popular You-Tube showing how to make a lasagna using Big Macs – something most people recognize as a joke video/internet spoof or a prank.

But when it matters, it matters that you find trusted sources for information you will be depending on. For one example, if you want to know “how banks handle” a certain situation, sure – learn what you can online if you like. And then talk to your bank to confirm that’s how they do things.

Don’t automatically trust online sources – no matter how many say the exact same thing. Always remember that just because it’s online certainly doesn’t mean it’s true.

The internet is the best place ever to search for information and to learn about things. There are solid experts online – absolutely. But it’s as important to be an informed consumer on the internet as in real life. Maybe more so.

(Searching for “Problems with _____” or “Reviews of ____” will help you see if there are other perspectives on what an internet expert is presenting.)

The bottom line: The more you want to believe something you saw online is true -or- the easier it is to just rely on it, the more you will benefit from double-checking that information offline and in-person before acting in situations where the cost or the risks are significant to you.

From the “Smart About Money” Canton Citizen column published October 5 2023.
Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank – right next to the Post Office – in Canton.
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