The Morass of Misinformation On the Net

ByCommentary<br>By John C. Dvorak

Feb. 25, 2004 -- 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 ( 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.

The verbal gaffs of Dan Quayle were perfect for this sort of thing, too. During his era, all known gaffs and spoonerisms were attributed to him. And it was amazing how many people claimed they heard him say these things or they knew someone who knew someone who heard him say them.

The Horrors Won't End

Anyway, this sort of thing is not new, as I've noted. What is new is the transmission medium.

When you make an error in a newspaper, for example, you can usually print a retraction before the gaffe becomes gospel. The mistake is like a pimple that doesn't spread and can be treated. With the Internet, the error is more like smallpox in an unprotected community.

Some user studies in England queried people about their concerns regarding e-mail viruses and asked how careful the subjects were to avoid clicking on weird attachments. Something like 75 percent of the respondents said they didn't care one way or the other. This in itself begs for analysis, but also tells you something about the computer-using public — it is not on the ball.

This says to me that a good propaganda campaign done right would be very successful, since the majority of users will passively receive anything. Look at how a no-name politico like Howard Dean used Internet selling techniques to cajole people out of around $50 million for a doomed campaign — a colossal waste of money, in hindsight.

In the end, people believe what they want to believe. The Internet is not a bastion of truth and freedom, it's a pit of horror and lies. It's geared up to become a mechanism of tyranny and madness. Nothing can change this. With people clicking like idiots on e-mail attachments that say "about you" or "you'll find this interesting," I see the situation as hopeless.

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