The Morass of Misinformation On the Net

It's becoming more and more apparent that the Internet is the biggest source of lies and bad information ever imagined.

There is nothing like it, and it has the potential to create sociological problems unlike anything we've ever seen. I'm amused that certain governments fear the power of the Internet, when they could be using it as a propaganda tool of the most powerful sort.

Here are a couple of exercises that look easy at first, then quickly turn difficult.

Erroneous Exercises

First, try using the Internet to determine who originally said "the sky is falling." Was it Henny-penny or Chicken Little? Both characters often appear in the same story, but only one of them first uttered the famous phrase. The more you research this, the more you discover that the tale, which first surfaced in 19th-century folklore, has been rewritten so often that the contradictory information is ridiculous. And this is a situation where nobody is trying to fool anyone. The situation is just a mess.

Trying to determine the exact wording of the "bumpy ride" quote said by Betty Davis in the movie All About Eve is another amusing Internet exercise.

From my experience, the only way you can get this right is to rent the film and watch it with pen in hand. An Internet search will do you no good at all. Go to Google and search for "Betty Davis bumpy ride" or "All About Eve quotes." You'll get everything from "Hang on to your hats, we're in for a bumpy ride" to "Fasten your seatbelts, you're in for a bumpy night," and every imaginable variation. It's ridiculous.

I invite readers to join the PC Magazine forum (http://discuss.pcmag.com) and add other search suggestions that produce these kinds of discrepancies. I would like to develop a canonical list of misinformation on the Internet, although the Internet itself may be the list.

No One's Safe From Being Spoofed

The question you have to ask is: If Internet information that should be accurate, such as a simple quote from a movie, is so often wrong, exactly what can you trust? You also have to wonder what happens if the information is a lie designed to manipulate readers. Apparently, the Nigerian scam e-mails still rope people in every year, although the number of victims is unknown.

Of course propaganda, misquotes, bad information, botches, and blatant lies are nothing new in old media, either.

The first example that comes to mind is the Wall Street Journal falling for a 2002 April Fool's gag and reporting that Harrods department store in London was going public. The store, in its phony press release, even listed the contact as Lirpa Loof to tip off anyone with a clue. That has to be the most often-used hint in these gags. Lirpa Loof, of course, is April Fool spelled backwards. I myself have used a variation (Lirpa Sloof) in at least four April Fool's gags over the years.

It gets worse with Photoshop. There is a hilarious picture of John Kerry sitting next to Jane Fonda — a beautiful Photoshop hoax that flew around the Net overnight. How many people ever discovered it was a clever hoax? And a few years ago, there was the fake picture of George W. Bush reading a fairy tale book upside down. I could not believe how many people were taken in by that one. The best photo hoaxes are designed to confirm preexisting notions.

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