Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internetby 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 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.
“The book reads like a herpetologist's tour through a pit of electronic vipers.” —Inc. Magazine
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Web of Deception
Misinformation on the Internet
By Anne P. Mintz
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Anne P. Mintz
All rights reserved.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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..
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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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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.