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Internet usage statistics

Net hoaxes and rumors

Net Spreads Lies Far and Wide

The Gullible Virus

"One of the fascinating things about the Web is that it lends itself to disinformation, misinformation, and mischief."
Steffen Schmidt
Iowa State University

"Whether it's about agency billings and income or high-stakes geopolitical strategy, disinformation is part of the communications arsenal. Efforts to confuse, misdirect, mislead, or confound a public are part of today's world."
Advertising Age

"I am constantly amazed at how obediently people accept explanations that begin with the words 'The computer shows.' or 'The computer has determined.' It is [the] equivalent of the sentence 'It is God's will.,' and the effect is roughly the same."

-- Neil Postman, Technopoly

ITH increased use of the Internet for a variety of day-to-day information - such as finding current news, movie times, or weather forecasts - users let their guard down and forget that the internet is highly susceptible to misinformation. While often harmless, misinformation can be devastating when it relates to sensitive issues such as stock prices or financial news. As the number of regular internet users grows at an incredible pace, misinformation becomes a more dangerous threat to everyday users and a more powerful weapon for malicious users.

In his book Technopoly, technology-critic Neil Postman describes how people are always willing to believe anything from some authoritarian source:

The average person today is about as credulous as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.

To prove how likely people are to believe things with scientific overtones, Postman describes a social experiment which he has performed on his colleagues. He tells his colleagues about a scientific study which has a ridiculously unprobable conclusion and judges their reactions. The entire scientific study is, of course, fabricated by Postman. An example of one of his studies is as follows:

"Well, they did this study to find out what foods are best to eat for losing weight, and it turns out that a normal diet supplemented by chocolate eclairs eaten three times a day is the best approach. It seems that there's some special nutrient in the eclairs - encomial dyoxin - that actually uses up calories at an incredible rate."

He reports that at least two-thirds of the subject either believe what he has told them or are hesitant to disbelieve it. They often say something like "Really? Is that possible?" or "You know, I've heard something like that." A similar phenomenon can be seen in society's growing use of the internet.

Society's increased dependence on the internet is turning it into a source of information that has more authority than it rightly deserves. When the internet was just starting to become a household term in the early 1990's, the average person was skeptical of its usefulness. It was considered to be just a novelty, with practical applications only for a small, tech-savvy slice of the population. Since that time, however, the internet has infiltrated the daily lives of these once skeptical users, many of whom cannot imagine how they ever managed without it.

The problem is that the internet is not as reliable a source of information as traditional media such as television, radio, and newspapers. It is true that traditional media sometimes report misinformation, but only after the information has passed the scrutiny of at least one editor or producer. The internet is inherently prone to misinformation for two reasons. First, a large percentage of its sensitive content is automatically produced by computers and thus prone to inevitable computer errors. Second, it has small barriers of entry, meaning it is easy for anyone to publish information on the internet and make it appear authentic. Even people who understand why the internet is prone to misinformation may be lulled into a state of unquestioning acceptance after routinely using it to access a wide range of information.

For proof of how accepting people have become of questionable information from the internet, one can perform an altered version of Postman's experiment on friends and colleagues. First mention that the information appeared as a Yahoo! "Health Tip" or on other Internet source. Then leave out the scientific details and simply say something like "diets are most healthy when they include regular portions of chocolate eclairs" or "too much jogging causes a statistically significant decrease in intelligence." If the subject does not express any concern that the study may be a case of internet misinformation, he/she may have already yielded too much authority to the Internet as a reliable source of information.

Consider the following four examples of financial misinformation and some of the negative consequences they may have caused.

AOL Misinformation
The Ticketmaster Typo
More AOL Misinformation
The PairGain Technologies Hoax

Little progress has been made in curbing such misinformation. In May of 2000, Yahoo! falsely reported that the price of Oracle Corp. stock had fallen more than 90% in one day. One can imagine the financial burden this would have caused had that information been used, for example, by a program which automatically sold shares once a stock price fell below a certain level.

Because of the internet's inherent vulnerability to misinformation, it is unlikely that this problem will be resolved in the near future. Rather, misinformation will become a more severe hazard if it is allowed to thrive on the users' growing dependence on the internet. Thus, the responsibility to curb this growing problem is in the hands of the individual user. The user must always maintain a certain level of awareness so that he or she does not fall victim to this increasingly ignored danger of the internet.