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Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet

Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet

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by Anne P. Mintz

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As the Internet has become flooded with untrustworthy information, some of which is intentionally misleading or erroneous, this book teaches web surfers how inaccurate data can affect their health, privacy, investments, business decisions, online purchases, and legal affairs. Bringing together the world’s leading information-age observers, analysts, writers, and


As the Internet has become flooded with untrustworthy information, some of which is intentionally misleading or erroneous, this book teaches web surfers how inaccurate data can affect their health, privacy, investments, business decisions, online purchases, and legal affairs. Bringing together the world’s leading information-age observers, analysts, writers, and practitioners, this analysis reveals the Web as fertile ground for deception and misinformation. These experts provide hard-won advice on how to recognize misinformation in its myriad forms and disguises. Included are an array of tips on how to evaluate web sites for quality and bias, checklists for navigating the Internet more effectively, and advice for those who have been duped.

Editorial Reviews

Inc. Magazine
The book reads like a herpetologist's tour through a pit of electronic vipers.
Publishers Weekly
There's a vast amount of intentionally misleading and erroneous information on the Web, says Anne P. Mintz, the director of knowledge management at Forbes Inc. To help readers recognize and deal with this problem, she has gathered 10 contributors to write Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet. The authors-who range from database experts to consultants to librarians-examine various pitfalls casual Internet users and professionals should watch out for. The subjects include e-commerce fraud, Web sites that "play doctor," identity theft, charity scams and more. One of the book's most revealing chapters is librarian LaJean Humphries's explanation of how to evaluate a Web site. She suggests considering who wrote the site's content, how often it is updated and if the document is well written. A "webliography" lists sites that offer quality information (among them, www.fraud.org and www.charitablechoices.org). Mintz's wise book will be of great help to parents, educators and every Internet surfer. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Edited by the director of knowledge management at Forbes Inc., this collection of essays on the use of the Internet to deceive intentionally brings together the experience of both information industry professionals and librarians in order to shed light on the darker corners of the Internet. Contributers include Mintz, Paul Piper, Susan Detwiler, Stephen Arnold, and Susan Feldman. Certainly deception and antisocial behavior (and gullible victims) preexisted long before the Internet; however, the electronic realm has proved to be a fertile playground for thieves, charlatans, and propagandists. The types of intentionally deceptive Internet activity covered include counterfeit web sites and web hoaxes, medical misinformation, corporate misinformation, identity theft, privacy invasion/data mining, charity scams, consumer fraud, questionable legal advice, and search engine/ad placement issues. Examples of intentional deception range from the hilarious to the potentially deadly. Other chapters provide information on evaluating web sites and using search engines and what to do if you are a victim of fraud. Short of unplugging from the Internet completely, there are ways to protect and advise library patrons who use the net, and this book provides detailed information, countermeasures, and useful web sites. It would be difficult for any print book to be up-to-date on the creatively devious ways that online users can be exploited on a daily basis. However, the remedies offered are still current and broad enough to be useful. Although data mining is discussed, a chapter on adware, or so-called "spyware," would be helpful in any future edition. Recommended for public, school, and academic librarians, especially those who teach information literacy workshops. [Index not seen.] Robert L. Battenfeld, Long Island Univ.-Southampton Coll. Lib., NY
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The 10 information-industry professionals who contributed essays to this book were commissioned to share their expertise in illuminating and analyzing the "dark side" of the Web. They aim to impart critical-awareness skills, a healthy dose of skepticism, and practical tips to Internet users. By coaching consumers to engage proactively in investigative search techniques, they want to educate an online community that will be less likely to fall prey to hoaxes, charitable scams, identity theft, medical or legal misinformation, and fraudulent e-commerce schemes. Chapters on how to evaluate Web sites and on how search engines work will be particularly valuable to students, arming them with checklists for establishing authority, strengthening their ability to discern bias, and alerting them to considerations of "paid placement" and subtle advertising in ranked search results. Each topic is thoughtfully addressed, documented with excellent examples, and, in some cases, accompanied by remedies or "countermeasures" to pursue to redress a grievance. An extensive index and a Webliography of quality sites mentioned in the text (many representing links to key government and nonprofit resources) round out the book. The multiple authorship of the text causes the writing to be a bit uneven; some chapters are readily accessible to casual readers, while others target a more sophisticated audience. Nevertheless, the book represents a welcome addition to the arsenal of tools offering guidance on identifying trustworthy, accurate data on the Web, and provides a public service by enumerating techniques for spotting misrepresentations.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

“The book reads like a herpetologist's tour through a pit of electronic vipers.”  —Inc. Magazine

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Information Today, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Web of Deception

Misinformation on the Internet

By Anne P. Mintz

Information Today, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Anne P. Mintz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937290-93-1


Web Hoaxes, Counterfeit Sites, and Other Spurious Information on the Internet

Paul S. Piper

LipBalm Anonymous (www.kevdo.com/lipbalm) is an intriguing site. It's a twelve-step program for lip balm addicts, an idea so absurd that it is obviously false ... or is it? There are people who use lip balm quite frequently until it has become a habi. There are also people who believe that lip balm producers might have few qualms about covertly adding habit-forming ingredients, such as those that might dry the lips, to substances as innocuous as lip balm. Does it matter if it is a clinical addiction or not? This site does an excellent job of mixing credible information into a mix of probable paranoia and fantasy. When Kevin Crossman, the site's author, was contacted about the veracity of his site, his written response was that he resented the accusation that his site was categorized as misinformation. "Lip balm addiction is a REAL thing. LOTS of people take our site seriously." There you have it, straight from the creator's mouth. Is it legitimate? A hoax? A spoof? How do you know? Read on.

A Rough Taxonomy

The categories these sites fall into are counterfeit, malicious, product, fictitious, parodies/spoofs/entertainment, hacks, and disinformation. Another source of disinformation on the Web is mistakes. Anyone, from the most senior editor of the most prestigious news organization to a student putting up a class project, can make honest mistakes involving everything from typos to accidental omissions. Due to the accidental nature of these errors, they will not be dealt with here.

A true counterfeit site is one that attempts to pass itself off as an authentic site much as a counterfeit $20 bill attempts to enter the economy as currency. The sites here mimic the look and feel of the original or attempt to, in the case of the www.gatt.org site. Some organizations have as part of their agenda the hosting of Web sites that intentionally misguide information seekers and, within their free speech rights to host information on the Net, disseminate information that is often discriminatory or factually misleading. These sites are categorized as malicious. Product sites are legitimate commercial (.com) sites that slant their information toward selling a product. The information on these sites, though not false, is often misleading and needs to be taken for what it is — an advertisement. These sites include medical and business sites, areas where misinformation can have dangerous consequences. Fictitious sites are those that represent something completely fabricated, such as a city that does not exist. Parody/spoof sites are counterfeit sites that use humor to poke fun at an original site, product, or organization. Even though their intention may be political, they typically are not malicious, and their "misinformation" is fairly obvious. And hacked sites are sites that have been modified by hackers for any number of reasons.

While misinformation is typically understood to mean "wrong" information, a lot of Web content details issues of opinion rather than fact. Information that we might consider overly biased or wrong may prove useful to someone arguing against that agenda. For example, a person who is against capital punishment might benefit greatly from knowing how death penalty advocates think. Since many of the parody and spoof sites on the Web are political, they often contain antithetical information that might prove useful given the proper context. There aren't absolutes.

These categories are not airtight and often overlap. The martin lutherking.org site, while in the counterfeit category, might be considered a malicious site; the Mankato, Minnesota, site is a spoof and also a counterfeit site. Add to this mix an enormous array of opinions, polemics, prophecies, and pundits, and it all adds up to a great convoluted complex of misinformation that needs to be deciphered. What these sites all have in common is that they pass off information that is questionable or misleading, to varying degrees, and they often do it using the illusion of legitimacy.

Counterfeit Web Sites

Counterfeit sites are the most troublesome of hoax Internet sites. The Martin Luther King site just mentioned exemplifies a site pretending to be something it is not, a Trojan horse so to speak. Counterfeit sites disguise themselves as legitimate sites for the purpose of disseminating misinformation. They are not always attempts at humor or spoof, and even when humorous, they are often misconstrued. The intentions of counterfeit sites are as varied as the sites themselves but can be roughly divided into several categories: political, for fun, or instructional.

The martinlutherking.org site is a particularly troubling example of deceptive data, while pretending to be, on the surface, an "official" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., site. The home page as of March 2002 depicts a photograph of King with an unflattering quote from Newsweek 1998, and links titled "Truth About King," "Jews and Civil Rights," "Historical Writings," "Death of the Dream," "The King Holiday," and "Suggested Books." Underlying these areas, however, are other links to sites that are of questionable relationship to Dr. King. These include instances of his supposed plagiarism, to David Duke online, and to a speech by Jesse Helms that supposedly connects King to the Communist party. One that is particularly disturbing gives a description of Martin Luther King, the night before he was shot, partying with three white women, one of whom (it claims) he beat up. The counterfeit Martin Luther King site seems specifically targeted toward student research. (Prior to March 2001, this site was less obvious in its slant, featuring a home page with a family photo, although the underlying links and pages were similar in content. The original page is still available for viewing in the Google Archives. Search the URL "martinlutherking.org" and choose the archive option.) A number of alerts appeared on library and educational LISTSERVs and warned teachers and educators of the existence of the site and the identity of the sponsor.

Two top page clues belie the true intention of this site. The e-mail link displays a link to vincent.breeding@stormfront.org. The home page for Stormfront, the site's sponsor, claims to be a resource for White nationalists, "those courageous white men and women fighting to preserve their white western culture." The link to the Web design by Candidus Productions brings up a page that states, "Welcome to the Candidus Productions Web site! We provide various Web applications for pro-White people online." But most visitors do not normally click e-mail and Web design links. Even the underlying pages, although obviously advocating White power (the recommended books include My Awakening by David Duke), can easily fool less sophisticated Web users because the information is presented in a "factual" manner, cites "government documents," and the design is polished and appears sympathetic to King.

One of the first counterfeit sites to draw attention was the www.makah.org (no longer extant) site that appeared during the controversy over the Makah Tribe's harvest of gray whales. The Makah's official tribal page is www.makah.com.

The Makahs, a Washington coastal tribe, had won federal appeals to harvest a few gray whales in an attempt to resurrect tribal tradition. They immediately came under attack by environmental and animal rights organizations. One of these protest groups created a Web site that mimicked the authentic tribal site. Behind its look-alike home page, however, the counterfeit site contained anti-whaling information and called the Makahs murderers. The Makah whaling issue attracted national press, and the counterfeit site began getting many hits from surfers, who assumed that .org was the real domain for the tribe.

Once behind the site, there was no attempt to disguise the bias of the information, and the third-person personal pronouns and verbal attacks clued the reader immediately to the site's agenda. However, on the Web, getting someone to the message is a primary achievement. The fake Makah site is now gone, the official site still exists, and the Makahs still harvest gray whales. Elaine Cubbins of the University of Arizona Library has created an insightful and thorough guide to evaluating Native American Web sites (see www.u.arizona.edu/~ecubbins/webcrit.html). She notes that potential for tribal misrepresentation arises when an individual tribal member or faction within the tribe creates a site and claims it is representative, or when a site is counterfeited. Dawn Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Native American Communications Council (NACC), which seeks to be a watchdog for disinformation on this subject, stated (Newsbytes, February 3, 1995), "The anonymity of online services allows for unscrupulous individuals to present disinformation on Native cultures and beliefs to serve their own personal agenda."

The spate of anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, in November 1999, launched the creation of another highly sophisticated, and extensive, counterfeit Web site that claims to be the home page of the WTO (www.gatt.org). (The official WTO site is www.wto.org.) While this site features underlying anti-WTO information and uses the names of popular radical celebrities (Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian author and commentator on National Public Radio, is listed as the fiscal manager of the Media Fund), these are largely inside jokes. It is a detailed and sophisticated site.

In a press release by the WTO (www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres99_e/pr151_e.htm), Director General Mike Moore stated that counterfeit Web sites created confusion for the public looking for legitimate information. And he is obviously right. According to the New York Times (January 7, 2001), a trade group in Salzburg, Austria, the Center for International Legal Studies, thought the page was the official WTO site and requested Mike Moore, via e- mail, to address their conference. The site's sponsors were only too happy to oblige, sending a Dr. Bichlbauer as their representative to the conference. His presentation, which claimed among other things that Americans would be better off auctioning their votes in the presidential election to the highest bidder, offended many attendees. The fracas continued, with the phony Dr. Bichlbauer supposedly hit in the face with a pie and, upon returning to the states, hospitalized due to a "biological agent" that was present in the pie. Dr. Bichlbauer's death was announced via e-mail several days later, eliciting the first recognition from the legal center that the entire thing had been a hoax. It doesn't end here, however, as a representative for the site's organizers claims that an invitation to a textile conference in Finland will lead to the successor of Dr. Bichlbauer attending.

The Ed Report (www.edreport.com) is a bogus government report that was created by two creative writers, William Gillespie and Nick Montfort. The site is deliberately blasé enough to be mistaken for bureaucratic, and is broken into segments that sound legit: Letter from the National Security Council, Charter of the Ed Commission, Summary of Findings, Latest Press Release. Named after James Ed, a fictitious 28-year veteran of the National Security Agency, the authors were inspired to create this site after the mass attention given to the Starr Report that, according to CNN, triggered the heaviest Internet traffic until that date. (The Starr Report of September 1999 detailed alleged misdeeds by President Clinton.) The Ed Commission was supposedly chartered to investigate the recruitment of civilian contractors for use in short-term roles during covert operations. The text of the actual report is subtle but hilarious. It is difficult to tell this site is a hoax until one clicks on Latest Press Release, which mentions that it won an award for New Media Writing. One of the judges, Shelley Jackson, comments that the Ed Report is "a cunning piece of mimicry that manages to maintain an almost chinkless front of officialese while telling a funny, surreal, even touching story. Purporting to be a report on an ill-fated attempt by the CIA to employ civilians (including Bruce Springsteen) with a gift for ancient languages as code-talkers on a secret narcotics mission and complete with documentary trimmings, it patches into the dynamics of rumor and urban myth to run its operation in the gray area between fact and fiction — a project perfectly suited to the Web, where gray areas abound."

Checking to see who registered a site (e.g., using register.com) is one way to determine validity, but even this approach can be tricky. For example, makah.org is registered to the Makah Nation in Vancouver, Canada, while makah.com is registered to the Makah Tribal Council, Neah Bay, Washington. Only further checking reveals that the tribe headquarters is located in Neah Bay, Washington, and the Canadian address is a front. The martinlutherking.org site is registered to Stormfront; the gatt.org site is registered to Prince & Associates Inc., Washington, DC, with an administrative contact of jonathan@KILLYOURTV.COM. An educated guess gives this one away.

Suspicious Web Sites

Collections of photographs of lynchings, and other collections of material that some people call "hate sites," are too numerous and extensive to include here. Some of them are notorious for misinformation because they are couched in quasi-academic discourse, and are subtle or dishonest about their intentions. Others speak with seeming authority claiming that certain historically proven events did not take place at all. The Institute for Historical Review (http://ihr.org) is one example of that kind of site. A self-proclaimed nonideological, nonreligious, and nonpolitical organization, this site propagates one of the most deceitful and brutal myths around — that the mid-20th century European Holocaust didn't occur. While the site touts the number of Ph.D.s it has on its staff, claims it maintains high standards in the pursuit of exactitude in history, and is "sincere, balanced, objective, and devoid of polemics," a skeptic may question this. Certainly the statements made on this site, and others linked to it, such as "Auschwitz Myths and Facts" and the "Problem of the Gas Chambers," run counter to most of the historical literature and contain (at least) subtle anti-Semitism.

Then there's Kennewick Man. In 1996, two students discovered the remains of a 9,300-year-old skeleton on the shores of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington. The remains were thought by some scientists to be Caucasoid, a term referring to peoples who originally inhabited Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. The Native Americans of Washington State, however, using a law from 1990 protecting Indian graves found on federal land, claimed the skeleton as an ancestor and demanded it be handed over to them for Native American burial. A federal government agency involved agreed, and placed the remains in safe storage until the mandatory 30-day waiting period had passed. Within days, eight anthropologists, including some from the Smithsonian Institution, filed a lawsuit against the federal agency on the grounds that the tribes had not proven "cultural affiliation." It took almost five years before this case went to trial in June 2001. These are the facts about the skeleton. The Web sites, however, are not always so straightforward.

There are several sites devoted to this issue, but the one called The Kennewick Man News site, registered to New Nation News in Berkeley, California, (www.newnation.org/NNN-kennewick-man.html) seems to have an agenda of White power. While the controversial discussions over Kennewick Man's racial origins are legitimate, this site does not have the balance one would expect. In March 2001, a search for "Kennewick man" on HotBot and Google retrieved this site within the first ten hits. This site is deceptive in that it includes a number of press releases that question the skeleton's origin, which makes it seem like the staff writers for the various local newspapers are agreeing with the site's premise, which denies the aboriginal roots of the Kennewick Man. However, the site goes far over that line and claims that Europeans were the true first settlers in North America and have true rights to the land, not Native American tribes. Aside from the "Confederacy News" link on the first page, there are a number of other tip-offs as to where the true heart of this site lies. For example, it posts the "results" of a survey question: "What is the best solution for racial problems?" The top six responses are as follows:

• Break the USA into White, Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Other Sections: 9 percent.

• Create a biological weapon that targets some races: 9 percent.

• Return to separate but equal solution of the 1950s South: 10 percent.

• Build an organization eventually able to ethnically cleanse the USA: 15 percent.

• Create a Caucasian Homeland in part of the U.S. and secede: 16 percent.

• Abolish all laws forcing integration and minority preferences: 18 percent.

It doesn't take a weatherman to know which way this wind blows.


Excerpted from Web of Deception by Anne P. Mintz. Copyright © 2002 Anne P. Mintz. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anne P. Mintz has taught online database searching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Library Service. She is currently the director of knowledge management at Forbes Inc. She lives in New York City.

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Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book seems to indicate that the editor had no idea whatsoever what she was doing in putting it together. The essays are fairly well written, but the book reads like a mish-mosh of information, completely unclear. The lack of information on spyware just indicates that the editor seems to have no knowledge of the Internet at all, but is relying on her writers to help her put a book together. I did not find this book helpful, as the information in it is not new, novel, or particularly useful to anyone but a total newcomer, while the title just serves to scare off people from a legititmate search tool. It's unfortunate that Forbes backed the publication of this book.