Better Read That Again: Web Hoaxes and Misinformation
James had read through the few encyclopedia articles in the school library and the books on King were all checked out, but he wasn’t worried. He knew he could find plenty of material on the Internet, and he figured any information he found would be more up-to-date than the 3-year-old encyclopedia articles. Within minutes of searching he was printing off information he’d never read before concerning Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Communist Party, King’s sexual forays with three white women the night before his assassination, and an FBI investigation into illegal activities. Maybe this King guy wasn’t the saint everyone thought he was, thought James to himself. He was feeling the rush a reporter does when he smells “scoop.” He remembered his teacher’s words about originality. That night he wrote a very different paper than he’d originally intended. He called it “Why Martin Luther King Doesn’t Deserve a Holiday.” He handed his paper in with visions of an “A.” He imagined teachers and classmates congratulating him on his research savvy. The reaction was far different than he imagined.
The site James discovered was sponsored by the white hate group StormFront, a counterfeit Web site. James is fictitious, as is the above account, but it draws on a number of alerts that appeared on listservs shortly after the site appeared. The counterfeit Martin Luther King site was timed to coincide with the swell of research on King preceding his holiday and targeted specifically towards student research.
Misinformation on the Internet is, and will always be, a problem. One of the attributes of the Internet — the fact that nearly anyone can publish on it — creates an environment of freedom and simultaneously an environment that lacks quality control. That lack of quality control often requires the Internet user to perform the filtering done for us transparently in magazines, newsletters, journals, encyclopedias, books, and so on. The array of agents, editors, publishers, and professional readers that scrutinize the majority of published text is often absent from Internet content. And with the exception of librarians, information professionals, and some academics, many Internet users are ill-equipped to do a capable job of scrutiny.
is typically understood to mean “wrong” information, much of what is on
the Web is information detailing issues of opinion rather than fact, a
so-called gray area of information. Information that we might consider
overly biased or wrong may prove useful to someone arguing against that
agenda. For example, a pro-abortion advocate might benefit greatly from
knowing how anti-abortion 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.
A Note on Categories
The categories I have used here are certainly not airtight and do somewhat overlap. The martinlutherking.org cite, while in the counterfeit category, is certainly a malicious site; the Mankato, Minnesota, site is a spoof, while also being counterfeit.
A true counterfeit site is a 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 that I have chosen here mimic the look and feel of the original or attempt, in the case of the martinlutherking.org site, to supplant the authentic sites. Parody and spoof sites are counterfeit sites that use humor to poke fun at an original site, product, or organization. While their intention may be political, these sites are typically not malicious and their “misinformation” is fairly obvious.
What I have chosen to call malicious sites are sites sponsored by hate groups. These groups, while well within their free-speech rights to host information on the Net, disseminate information designed to be hurtful and discriminatory.
Product sites are
legitimate dot-com sites that slant information toward or against
the selling of a product. Subject-specific sites include medical and business
sites, areas in which misinformation can cause critical damage. Hacked
sites are sites modified by hackers for any number of reasons.
Counterfeit Web Sites
Counterfeit sites are the most troublesome of hoax Internet sites. The Martin Luther King site alluded to above 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, these counterfeit sites 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.
One of the first sites of this nature to draw attention was the www.makah.org (no longer extant) site that appeared during the controversy over the Makah Indian Tribe’s harvest of grey 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 grey whales in an attempt to resurrect tribal tradition. The tribe 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 dot-org was the real domain for the Indian 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 (I found traces of the page in Google’s archives), the official site still exists, and the Makahs still harvest grey whales. Elaine Cubbins of the University of Arizona Library has created an insightful and thorough guide to evaluating Native American Web sites [http://www.u.arizona.edu/~ecubbins/webcrit.html]. Elaine 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.
The martinlutherking.org is one of the most odious sites on the Web. It disseminates hateful information about one of the greatest African-American leaders of our era while pretending to be, on the surface, an “official” Martin Luther King, Jr. site. The home page depicts a photograph of King, his family in the foreground, and links titled “Historical Writings,” “The Death of a Dream,” and “Recommended Books,” among others. It also links to a pictorial review of the Civil Rights period. The two top page clues lie in the e-mail link to email@example.com (a white power organization) and the Web design by Candidus Productions link. The Candidus Productions home page is decorated by white power symbols and 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 offers a polished design apparently sympathetic to King.
The recent spate of World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle launched the creation of another highly sophisticated and extensive counterfeit Web site that claims to be the home page of the WTO [http://www.gatt.org]. (The official WTO site is http://www.wto.org.) While this site features underlying anti-WTO information and uses the names of popular radical celebrities (Andrei Codrescu is listed as the fiscal manager of the Media Fund), these are largely inside jokes. It is a detailed and sophisticated site. A professor I know used this site on a quiz recently, asking students to explain why the site was or was not the official WTO site. Nearly half the 20 students erred and claimed it was. In a recent press release by the WTO [http://www.wto.org/wto/new/press151.htm], Director General Mike Moore stated that recent counterfeit Web sites created confusion for the public looking for legitimate information. And he is obviously right. Yet again, for a researcher looking for information running counter to the WTO party line, sites like these may be useful.
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.
Parodies and Spoofs
While sites that seriously counterfeit a legitimate organization’s home page are relatively rare, a huge number of sites parody or spoof persons, companies, and organizations. The difference between parody (a satirical imitation) and spoof (a light parody) is slight and a matter of degree, so I lump these two categories together. Because the satire is fairly obvious, there should be little occasion to mistake their content for truth. Unfortunately people often seem more gullible with Web information.
Parody sites are often political, and typically employ humor to get their message across. They can often be extremely useful to researchers looking for antithetical or alternative information. They often feature a spinoff of the legitimate name, such as HastaLaVista (AltaVista), Microshaft (Microsoft), or Washington Pissed (Washington Post), and often capitalize on URLs that seem legitimate [http://www.gwbush.com].
These sites can cause particular problems when underlying pages are retrieved by a search engine and appear as discrete bits of information divorced from the site as a whole. Many stories exist about “news” from The Onion [http://www.onion.com/] being used and cited in academic research. The probable cause, aside from sloppy work, is the appearance of an Onion story in a list of hits without reference to its home site.
An excellent and extensive directory of these sites has been compiled by the Dutch site Aanvang.net [http://www.aanvang.net/parody.html], featuring these categories: TV Shows, Portals/ Search Engines, ISPs, Internet, Magazines/Newspapers, 18+ (Adult), Politics, Miscellaneous (covering many corporate site hoaxes), and Microsoft, which has earned its own category with links to nine sites.
The White House, as one might suspect, is a convenient target. Several sites have counterfeited it. whitehouse.com (a porn site), whitehouse.org (a scandalous site currently undergoing remodeling with an archived version available at http://www.hatchoo.com/whitehouse/index.html); and whitehouse.net (a comic look at White House antics). These sites also capitalize on domain name appropriation. The whitehouse.net site features viewers’ feedback, much of it serious. One poor woman thought it disrespectful to paint it pink. The real White House page is, of course, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
A number of fake George Bush sites have arisen and gotten some publicity. One extant site, the George W. Bush Campaign Headquarters [http://www.bushcampaignhq.com/] is a spoof that admits in its top-of-the-page introduction, “For those of you who are new, a word of caution: this is not the real, official George W. Bush Election Committee’s site.” Another counterfeit site, http://www.gwbush.com/, was attacked by Bush as malicious. His campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and delivered a cease and desist order demanding the parody material be killed. “It is filled with libelous and untrue statements whose aim is to damage Governor Bush in his effort ‘for President’ in the upcoming election,” a copy of the FEC complaint reads. The parody site received 6,451,466 hits during the first 25 days of May 1999, thanks in part to the story’s front-page treatment by The New York Times online edition. Meanwhile, the real George W. Bush Web site received only about 30,000 hits in May, according to Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker (ABCNEWS online). The authentic George Bush site is http://www.george wbush.com/.
Nor are Gore [http://www.algore-2000.org/] or Forbes [http://www.cais.net/aschnedr/forbes.htm] immune. And while a bit off the subject, check out the design of the Bill Gates for President page at http://www.billgates2000.net/intro.html. Domain grabbing and squatting have accounted for enormous traffic to a number of counterfeit sites.
Another popular parody site is the Mankato, Minnesota, page [lme.mankato.msus.edu/mankato/mankato.html], a site that depicts Mankato, Minnesota, as a tropical paradise and described in detail by LaJean Humphries in the May 2000 Searcher. The Mankato site was created by Don Descy, who teaches instructional media and technology courses, including Web evaluation, at Mankato State University. One would be hard-pressed to see how this site could fool anyone, yet the reaction, printed on the site, by Maureen Gustafson, president/CEO of the Mankato Area Chamber & Convention Bureau, is damning. She writes, “ For some time your project on the Internet has troubled us. Though you claim it was done in the name of education many are laughing at our community rather than with it. Our office has received numerous inquiries on the fictitious information, and it is very embarrassing to have to explain it as nothing more than a prank.” She has apparently told Don that people do show up in Mankato expecting palm trees. The real Mankato page is http://www.ci.mankato.mn.us/index.php3.
The Whirled Bank [http://www.whirledbank.org] is an excellent example of a parody site that provides politically alternative information to the mission and accomplishments of the World Bank [http://www.world bank.org/]. The home page is counterfeit except for the name. The Whirled Bank site is registered to Global Arcade, a group involved with education in global justice activism.
Products succumb to parodies quite regularly. Adbusters [http://www.adbusters.org/spoofads/], an advertising literacy organization, has created a number of one-page spoofs on products, including Absolut Vodka, Obsession Cologne, and Prozac.
Hatchoo [http://www.hatchoo.com/parody/index.html], a parody of Yahoo!, has a brief directory of other spoof and parody sites, including “Smart Cars,” “Benneton,” “Mercedes Renz,” and “Sinatra-prints (and other life) on Mars”.
While the intentions of this site are very different, the University of Santa Anita (fictitious) AIDS FACTS page [http://220.127.116.11/library/research/AIDSFACTS.htm], created by John Henderson of the Ithaca College Library for the purpose of Web evaluation, lists a number of bogus AIDs “facts” attributed to, and even citing, organizations like the CDC and Johns Hopkins. While these facts seem false to most of us (“New evidence from John Hopkins: Married women can reduce their risk from AIDS by 73.8 percent if they do not share their toothbrushes with their husbands”), and a disclaimer appears at the bottom of the page (“The ‘facts’ on this page are intended to be outrageous and obviously bogus, because I don’t want someone stumbling onto the site to mistake them for true facts.”), more naïve users or users who know nothing about AIDS/HIV and who don’t bother reading thoroughly could take these jokes as fact.
Clones-R-Us [http://www.d-b.net/dti/], hosted by Dream Technologies International, claims to be the first and largest reproductive cloning provider. “We maintain fully-owned labs in Costa Rica, Liberia, and Vanuatu, as well as an extensive roster of qualified surrogate birthing candidates.” While elaborate, the sites states in the “About Us” section: “As you’ve hopefully realized, this site is a spoof site, which simulates one possible ramification from advances in cloning science. It is hoped that this site will stimulate thought on the pros and cons of reproductive cloning — and hopefully also foster some discussion.” For some great laughs, check out the price list.
The infamous article “Feline Reactions to Bearded Men” (the product of a site, http://www.improb.com, which also publishes the partially online journal The Annals of Improbable Research), is a great parody of an academic research article. A similar example is the equally infamous “report” on California’s Velcro Crop [http://members.unlimited.net/~kumbach/velcro.html]. Obviously a traditionally formatted Web article that was not so over-the-top could easily be perceived as credible.
The employees of
actually create fake Web sites for a living. Or else they do it while they’re
supposed to be working. Their current list includes: God’s Home page, Da
Mafia’s Home page, Boris Yeltsin’s Super Fansite, and the Chris Cam (a
spoof of Webcams).
While all the above sites employ some degree of fiction, the sites categorize as fictitious are not primarily humorous in intent and not true parodies.
The Ruritania (a fictitious country) home page [http://homepages.udayton.edu/~ahern/rurindx.htm] is an ambitious project hosted by the Political Science department of the University of Dayton and used in various classes. The site is a composite of various simulations and games developed by social scientists over the past 20+ years. Ruritania is presented as a medium-sized country of approximately 4 million people that is located in Scandinavia between Sweden and Norway. The site details its history, demographics, political system, and culture. The URL and references to simulation should give this site away immediately. Actually, Ruritania was a mythical kingdom with a Central European feel created by Anthony Hope in his Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau novels.
The New Hartford,
Minnesota, home page [http://lme.mnsu.edu/newhartford/newhtfd.html],
unlike its twin sister city of Mankato Minnesota (what is it about Minnesota?),
is not obviously a fake site. The biggest clue is in the URL that points
to an academic server. Missing this clue however, one would need to consult
an atlas to determine no such town existed.
LipBalm Anonymous [http://www.kevdo.com/lipbalm/] is an intriguing site that is so absurd — a 12-step program for lip balm addicts?!! — that it is obviously false…or is it? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m not too far removed from thinking that corporations would have few qualms about covertly adding addictive ingredients to substances as innocuous as lip balm. The site does an excellent job of mixing credible information into a mix of probable paranoia and fantasy. When I wrote the author, Kevin Crossman, claiming his site was false and asking for comments, he wrote back, “I resent the accusation that our site is lumped with 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.
Malicious Web Sites
Hate sites are too numerous and extensive to deal with in this article, but many of them are notorious for providing misinformation couched in quasi-academic discourse and subtle or dishonest misdirection about their intentions.
The Institute for
Historical Review [http://ihr.org/]
is one such site. A proclaimed non-ideological, non-religious, and non-political
organization, it is a front for Holocaust revisionism. 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,” the exact opposite is true. This site propagates
one of the most deceitful and brutal myths in existence — that the Holocaust
did not occur. One of these examples is enough to demonstrate the degree
of noxious nonsense on the Web.
While dot-com sites can offer reliable information, they typically compromise themselves by filtering out any information that could damage product sales. The sneakier commercial sites don’t bother to mention the fact that they are selling anything, and an unsuspecting researcher can enter a site like this, extract information, and run with it, often without even realizing they are being given only a select set of data and facts. While the examples below are medical, all dot-com sites typically put their best face forward in an effort to sell something.
CafeHerpes [http://www.cafeherpe.com/] is a very slick site that promises, “Everything you’ve wanted to know about genital herpes but were afraid to ask.” Its owners, SmithKline Beecham, hide their role in producing this site and let users discover their product, FAMVIR, in the “Expresso Bar” area of the site. While the information posted may be credible, and to its credit, SKB does offer some citations, the cite is certainly not complete, and it lures — with its “were afraid to ask” catch phrase — the embarrassed consumer into a trusting relationship with the site, the product, and the information contained on the site.
Melatonin Central [http://www.melatonin.com/], owned by Worldwide Labs, claims it is the complete reference center and information source for melatonin, but one would be hard-pressed to find much information with a negative slant. The “scientific facts” stated on the FAQ pages are selected from Newsweek, and nothing against Newsweek, but it doesn’t exactly rival JAMA in medical reporting.
The Facts about
Human Growth Hormone (hGH) [http://www.cosmic
dome.com/health/], sponsored by VesPro Life Sciences, is misleading
in that the “facts” presented are an attempt to sell a potential “fountain
of youth” to buyers. There is no reference to where the “facts” were obtained,
how current they are, how accurate they are, what contradictory evidence
exists, and so forth.
While many degrees of misinformation exist on the Web, from deliberate to accidental, serious to comic, obvious to subtle, the consequences are perhaps nowhere as severe as in the areas of health and business. Erroneous health information can quite simply lead to serious injury and even death. Bad business information can result in financial ruin.
Health information is perhaps among the most troublesome of all information on the Web. Teenagers and the elderly are most susceptible to misinformation in this area, and more and more seniors are getting online, capitalizing on what they see as a plethora of health information, particularly with regard to drugs, disease symptoms, cures, alternatives, etc. The Web site Senior Focus Radio [http://www.seniorfocusradio.com.cancerinformation.html] recently ran an article claiming that a recent survey of seniors indicated “their biggest concern about cancer information on the Internet was misinformation.” An example of such misinformation is a site [http://www.ioa.com/~dragonfly/news/kelley.html] that claims at the top of its page, “There is no cure for the common cold. There is a very simple CURE for cancer.” A number of sites like this can be retrieved by anyone searching “cancer and cure” or “cure for cancer” on an Internet search engine. And while some highly respectable and authoritative medical Web sites have emerged, medical misinformation is more accessible today than ever before.
Early in 1999 the
so-called “Nancy Markle Letter,” a piece really written by Betty Martini,
a leading aspartame activist, was submitted to over 450 e-mail groups.
The letter claimed that aspartame was responsible for multiple sclerosis
and systemic lupus. The author claimed she had just testified before the
EPA, and the letter contained numerous scientific “facts.” Victims of these
diseases who read and believed the letter were horrified. Responses from
the Multiple Sclerosis Society, National Soft Drink Association, and the
press (among them Time Magazine Health columnist Christine Gorman,
2/8/99) rushed to dispel the myth. Yet like a previous e-mail warning of
carcinogens in shampoo, this letter germinated a following (check the Nancy
Markle home page, http://nancymarkle.com/,
if interested) of people who believe Martini’s claims. What other popular
health myths have been propagated on the Net? Antiperspirants cause breast
cancer. Cooking in aluminum pans causes Alzheimer’s. Costa Rican bananas
carry flesh-eating bacteria. These and similar myths can be checked at
reliable public health sites, such as the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) [http://www.cdc.gov],
or the sites listed in the “Where to Go for Help”
The AIDS Myth Site [http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/index.htm], registered to the Institute for Investigative Medicine, Netherlands, is an example of information that represents an extreme minority view but is not necessarily malicious. Citing a number of prominent scientists, including Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, the cite claims that no proof exists that the HIV virus causes AIDS, that AIDS is not sexually transmitted, and that people die because they are poisoned to death by antiviral drugs. In addition, the site claims that its views are victimized by censorship.
The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis, the organization apparently behind much of the site, came into existence as a group of signatories of an open letter to the scientific community. The letter (dated June 6, 1991) has been submitted to the editors of Nature, Science, The Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine. All have refused to publish it. In 1996 the group finally got a letter published in Science.
The site is over 500 pages long and represents a mammoth effort to argue their claims. Because of its “authority,” a site like this could represent a source of dubious and potentially destructive information, or it could represent a rare doorway into another legitimate, but unpopular, perspective.
The Global Warming
Information Page [http://globalwarming.org/]
is an anti-global warming site that is not upfront about its position.
One of the more deceptive tactics I’ve seen is the statement near the top
of the page: “Need information for a research project? Check out our Student
Research Page (hyperlinked) to help you quickly find the information you
need.” Many students will read no further and go directly to this area
of the site. Here they will encounter information, including a handy “Synopsis
of the Issue,” that denies global warming is occurring. Global warming
is obviously a complex issue, and the jury is still out, but this site
is nothing more than research entrapment.
The volatility of markets can undermine anyone’s faith in the rationality of our economy, and nowhere is volatility more obvious than on the Internet.
In April of 1999 a counterfeit Web site of Bloomberg.com, a news service, touted a US $1.35 billion acquisition of PairGain Technologies of California by ECI Telecom of Israel. The ruse sent PairGain shares soaring 31 percent on April 7, but the stock fell back to earth after the story proved false. The frenzy started when a financial discussion page on Yahoo! included a link to the fraudulent Web site. For further information see WiredNews [http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,19094,00.html].
Another example involves the company Green Oasis Environmental (GOE) [http://www.greenoasis.com/] of Charleston, South Carolina. GOE spammed bulletin boards with more than 8,000 posts claiming it had perfected technology to change waste motor oil into diesel fuel. As the stock prices soared, from around $1 to $10 by February 1997, company officers dumped more than 700,000 shares, taking home around $2.3 million. The SEC brought a lawsuit against the CEO and others seeking a return of profits to investors. Lawsuit or not, GOE is still making this claim on its Web site.
To counteract the
rash of business and investment misinformation on the Net, the Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC) has set up what it calls a “Cyberforce” to
surf the Net for suspicious sites and postings, particularly those pointed
out by investor complaints. In 1999, the SEC received and responded to
73,908 complaints and questions, an increase of nearly 39 percent compared
to 1998. The SEC page at http://www.sec.gov/consumer/jalerts.htm
has sound information on avoiding a number of Internet scams.
Many hacked sites are simply tagged with
a slogan or statement, “This site hacked by _______.” Hackers (or crackers)
often want to brag and leave identity clues for other hackers. Hacked sites
are usually corrected immediately, although some hacks will require the
site being pulled down and rebuilt, which can take a few days. Even as
I wrote this I received a report that the Nike site has been hacked. The
group that did it wrote, “Global justice is coming — prepare now,” and
included a “call to action” at a meeting of the World Economic Forum on
September 11-13 in Melbourne, Australia. There are groups that specialize
in political hacks, including some that target only white power sites.
There is one final category of misinformation that we should probably mention, although instances are usually ephemeral and obvious — hacks. When a Web site is hacked, the content of the site is altered.
Many hacked sites are simply tagged with a slogan or statement, “This site hacked by _______.” Hackers (or crackers) often want to brag and leave identity clues for other hackers. Hacked sites are usually corrected immediately, although some hacks will require the site being pulled down and rebuilt, which can take a few days. Even as I wrote this I received a report that the Nike site has been hacked. The group that did it wrote, “Global justice is coming — prepare now,” and included a “call to action” at a meeting of the World Economic Forum on September 11-13 in Melbourne, Australia. There are groups that specialize in political hacks, including some that target only white power sites.
An incredibly extensive
archive (1996-1999) of hacked sites exists at Rewted Network Security Labs
Two other types of Web piracy are Web site theft and URL “hijacks.” The first situation occurs when someone appropriates, in part or whole, a Web site, typically for the purpose of exposing the viewers to advertising. This can be done by lifting the original material and adding additional content. It can also be achieved by framing the stolen site and displaying the original content surrounded by whatever ads or other content the thief wants to display. For more information on this check the ZDNet AnchorDesk [http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk/story/story_864.html].
Web hijacks are
URL redirects to unwanted sites. A user will click on a familiar URL only
to be taken to an unwanted site. Since exposure on the Web is paramount,
redirecting from a well-known site can result in millions of hits before
the redirect is fixed, exposing millions of people to unwanted information
There is a general feeling among many academics that information on the Web is suspect and not nearly as credible as that appearing in print sources. Hoax sites don’t do much to alleviate this mind-set, but one person’s misinformation can be another person’s gold mine. Hoax sites offer a number of possibilities, some of which I’ve already touched on. Many such sites offer alternative perspectives to topics that have an almost hegemonic truth. Even hate sites can provide useful information in bringing to light material that is typically censored from most public discourse. Only a truly free society can allow free exchange of ideas, regardless of how reprehensible some of those ideas might seem.
Hoax sites offer “teaching moments,” and in fact a number of them have been created for this very reason, for example the University of Santa Anita AIDS Facts, Mankato, Minnesota, and Clones-R-Us. The best of them will make us question why we believe some things and not others, providing a self-examination of how we view the world that is critical if we are going to truly analyze information. I found that the Lip Balm site had this trigger for me.
By learning how to deconstruct hoax sites, we become empowered and can share this knowledge. One example of this is broadcasting a counterfeit site, exposing someone like Nancy Markle.
And finally, some of them are absolutely hilarious. Since a friend insisted I read The Onion, I’ve become an addict.
While Web literacy demands intelligent Internet use, Web literacy is really not qualitatively different than information literacy. All information has bias and has to succumb to rigorous evaluation. This was driven home to me when I worked for disaster relief and began exploring refugee statistics. Even when reading an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, it doesn’t hurt to look again — there may be an article in JAMA next month that refutes it.
And remember, while
it is important to know what you’re getting, misinformation is often in
the eyes of the beholder.
|Where to Go for Help
The following sites are dedicated to tracking Internet hoaxes.
• The directory
featured at UrbanLegends
• Don’t Spread that Hoax [http://www.nonprofit.net/hoax/hoax.html] is one of the oldest and most reliable of the hoax busters. The site also features a directory, as well as links to useful authoritative resources (such as Thomas for legislative information) for checking information. However, this site is not as comprehensive as one might wish.
• Scambusters [http://www.scambusters.org/] is a comprehensive site endorsed both by Yahoo! and Forbes, among others. It features an e-zine, mail group, story of the month, directory of scams, tips to avoid scams, testimonials, ways to stop spams, phony and real viruses, and much more. The site is a bit difficult to navigate but well worth the look.
• SNOPES [http://www.snopes.com/], otherwise known as The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society’s Urban Legend Pages, is one of the largest collections of urban legends and hoaxes on the Internet. The hoaxes and legends are all coded with colored dots indicating one or more of the following: true, false, undetermined, and of indeterminate origin.
• The Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) [http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html] of the U.S. Department of Energy produces an updated list of hoaxes. Though not an extensive list, the site specializes in hoax Internet viruses and also provides a detailed and interesting history of hoaxes on the Internet.
• Rhode Island Soft Systems produces a site called Vmyths.com [http://www.vmyths.com] specifically designed to counter myths and hoaxes about computer viruses. Rob Rosenberger, an authority on “computer virus hysteria,” directs the site, which provides current news on both real and phony viruses. It also has a Resources section as well as an “Absurd” section covering the silliest cartoons and most bizarre quotations about viruses.
• The National
Fraud Center [http://www.fraud.org/welmes.htm]
is a consumer center for fraud, including Internet fraud. While the site
doesn’t have a list of fraud sites, it gives overviews of techniques, industries,
and demographics and includes an online form for reporting suspected fraud.
Invaluable information covers the most common Internet frauds: auctions
(which the site currently lists as the worst), business opportunities and
franchises, credit card safety, online credit repair, employment services,
magazine solicitations, online travel offers, pyramid schemes and illegitimate
multi-level marketing, scholarship scams, sweepstakes and prize offers,
and work-at-home offers.
If you encounter a URL with a slight deviation in the name, or there is an dot-org when you expected a dot-com, stay on the alert. A ~“name” reflects a personal site, and as such will represent personal views only.
On the site itself,
look for comic or incendiary language, lack of citation or authority, lack
of currency, a particular bias towards audience, or slant of information.
Check suspicious domain names with an agency like register.com. Use nonprint
sources for verification when needed.
Always check underlying pages, top level pages (if at an underlying page), and suspicious links to verify what you get is the real item.
Regularly visit Web sites that post hoaxes.
And finally, realize
that misinformation is often contextual and can possibly prove useful to
the right client.