Directory:Akahele/The persistence of misinformation

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The persistence of misinformation

As we mature in years through the Internet Age, we take notice of a disappointing trend regarding the reliability of information found online. Message boards full of pseudonymous theories and rumors compete for space against opinion editorials penned by professional journalists. Breathless blog posts exceed the reach of a mere university lecture series. And many popular homespun YouTube videos find a much wider audience than the televised proceedings of the legislative bodies of the United States. To be sure, for ages harmless mistakes and deliberate misinformation alike have been part and parcel of publishing and broadcasting information for wider audiences. Yet, it seems that the persistence of misinformation in this modern age is even more pernicious than it was, say, thirty years ago. More people today seem eager to believe anything they see in electronically-formatted print; things that have no more credibility than a supermarket tabloid announcing the birth of Pamela Anderson's secret alien abduction love child. And so, I would like to take this time and space to explore just a few anecdotal examples of the longevity of untruth on the Internet.

Snopes approved

Just the other day, a friend of my wife's forwarded an e-mail "alert" of the chain-mail variety, warning automobile travelers not to lock their cars with their key-fob remotes, because lurking high-tech burglars might capture the frequency of that signal, then gain access to your vehicle and rob it of its contents while you are inside Starbucks ordering your caramel latte.

File:Snopes logo.jpg logo

What I already know, and undoubtedly many readers here also know, is that there is a website,, whose sole purpose is to debunk Internet mythologies such as this one. (If you haven't yet discovered Snopes, add it to your bookmarked arsenal of useful sites.) Yet, what was particularly disconcerting to me about this specific e-mail legend, was that it proclaimed in bold letters, "THIS HAS BEEN CHECKED ON SNOPES". Snopes, of course, takes issue with almost every piece of information in the thread, but that doesn't mean some readers can't be thrown off track with this meaningless assurance that the information has been "checked". This kind of fraudulent diversionary ploy will rope in another small portion of readers for whom is a reputable information source.

Voter eligibility

Every election season we witness another persistent form of Internet-disseminated misinformation: fraudulent alerts about voter eligibility. Leading up to our most recent election day (Tuesday, November 4, 2008), I heard mainstream media stories about e-mails being circulated with the advice:

Due to heavy expected turnouts at the polls, Republicans are urged to vote on Tuesday, while Democrats are advised to vote on Wednesday.

Or, alternative hoaxes circulated that polling places would be staffed with undercover police ready to arrest anyone with so much as an outstanding parking ticket, to frighten away any voter who might have had an infraction with the authorities. Level-headed, rational adults might laugh away these pranks, but with nearly 170 million estimated registered voters in the United States, I'm sure that at least a few hundred were adversely persuaded by these nuggets of misinformation.

Another diversionary ploy

Over on Wikipedia, I see a similar diversionary ploy that is gaining strength. Users of the largest encyclopedia are cautioned by Wikipedia proponents not to believe every claim they read therein, but to "double check" the reference citations that are provided at the end of most articles. Problem is, most readers don't take the time to do such double work. Figuring that because there are references nearby, the content is likely reliable, readers assume the bare facts stated within the Wikipedia articles are "good enough" to gain a background on the topic at hand. They also hear time and time again (in news article comments, and blogs, and message boards, no doubt) that virtually every mistake ever introduced to Wikipedia would "probably be corrected in less time than it took you to read this article". Again, this is a largely untested diversionary ploy that will rope in another portion of readers for whom Wikipedia suddenly becomes a reputable information source.

Where was Lincoln?

Last week, I had a conversation with published author Pat Glesner. He lived and was educated in Kalamazoo, Michigan, not far from my birthplace of Jackson, Michigan, where he now resides. He views editing Wikipedia as a casual hobby, something he doesn't go out of his way to do, but if he finds errors in an article, he fixes them. He says of Wikipedia, "it's not a particularly good research site". In early January, Glesner came upon something that first appeared in the lead section of the Wikipedia article about Jackson, Michigan. Ever since May 18, 2007, the article claimed that Abraham Lincoln from Illinois was in attendance at Jackson's early convention of the brand-new Republican Party, in 1854.

File:Lincoln 1854.jpg
Abraham Lincoln, in 1854

Not only that, but a diversionary ploy was put in place, with the assuring text, "Undisputed is the fact that..." Upon whose authority was this "undisputed fact" entered into the world's largest encyclopedia? That would be IP address editor (no real name, not even a pseudonymous identity). The paragraph was later supported with a reference citation to a news article served on, but that link points now to a non-working address. And so, a veneer of authority was built around this supposed "fact", it being "undisputed" after all -- and cited, to boot!

Glesner, a multi-degreed Historical Commissioner, knew that one of Kalamazoo's claims to fame is that it was the only city in Michigan documented to have received a visit from Abe Lincoln (in 1856, to support then presidential candidate John Fremont). So, Glesner knew the "fact" about Lincoln's presence in Jackson two years earlier must be wrong. He took some time to check his understanding, then Glesner modified the Wikipedia article on January 8, 2009.

So, Wikipedia had a falsehood stuck in place for 601 days, on an article we estimate to have been viewed over 89,000 times before finally being fixed. The misinformation surrounded the earliest political career of perhaps the most important American individual of all time. But nobody spotted it for over six hundred days.

Hoaxes galore

It's not like this one incident is alone on Wikipedia. Entire articles have been cut from whole cloth, pulling the wool over the public's eyes for not just months, but years on end. There's the Wikipedia story of Argusto Emfazie, failed occultist. For four and a half years, Wikipedia published the tale of this fictitious man's "biography that promotes mysticism and the occult purely for the sake of mysticism and the occult". For well over three years, Wikipedia hosted a tongue-in-cheek article about the "Brahmanical See", a fabricated account of how the Hindu religion has its own version of the Pope. Indeed, one of the first editors to spot this hoax was chastised and blocked by the Wikipedia powers-that-be for having the nerve to attempt deletion of a fake article.

...the vandal Nexxt 1 has reprised vandalism by adding the Template:Prod tag to the page and fraudulently backdating the tag start date by five days or more, in an attempt to trigger immediate deletion (e.g. in a 13 October 2007 edit, he/she added the tag with the start date of 8 October 2007). The vandal has repeated the abuse of the Template:Prod tag despite being warned on his/her talk page (see above). The vandal has been concurrently warned for actions on other pages.

Just a few days ago, the Wikipedia article about Indian author Ravi Belagere was completely blanked by an administrator and re-started with much more basic information, because over a six-month period, the article had been allowed to acquire all sorts of defamatory rubbish inserted by anonymous IP address editors (again, no real names to attribute to, no real identity to hold accountable). So, this is our situation with today's Internet host of the largest encyclopedia. Unnamed assailants are free to pin allegations of statutory rape and underworld mob connections on real-named subjects of biographies on Wikipedia, and the only defense for the victim is to just... keep... monitoring... their Wikipedia article. Every day. For the rest of their life.

Highest offices vulnerable to the wiki-mob

Even the hundred Wikipedia articles about the 100 United States senators were found to be vulnerable to drive-by defamation, and lots of it. A systematic study evaluated each and every edit made to these specific 100 articles, throughout the fourth quarter of 2007. The survey's data revealed that 6.8% of the time, there was something wrong, vindictive, or defamatory lurking in these articles.

Indeed it was recent malevolent information added to the Wikipedia biographies about Senators Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy that prompted Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to make promises to the mainstream media that he would usher in new editorial controls that would make such loosey-goosey online defamation a thing of the past at Wikipedia.

Surely, there must be a fix!

It may not surprise you to learn that the Wikimedia Foundation (caretaker of the domain) has had at its disposal a technical "fix" that would help prevent probably the vast majority of these "drive-by" misinformation campaigns.

This broad-reaching solution to what perhaps is Wikipedia's biggest problem and most dangerous legal liability would be the implementation of a Mediawiki software extension called "Flagged Revisions". With flagged revisions, any new edit to a page would sit in a "holding" space where it would need to be "sighted" by an independent editor who was registered with the community and had a legacy of at least 4 days of editing and 10 accepted edits to Wikipedia. This solution has worked admirably on the German version of Wikipedia, but the English Wikipedia (under the scattered leadership of Jimbo Wales and a do-little Board of Trustees) has still failed to implement flagged revisions. In fact, the Wikimedia leadership has promised flagged revisions for years now, but those in the know ultimately realize a diversionary ploy when they see one.

Image credits

  • logo, fair use doctrine.
  • Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln by Polycarp Von Schneidau, Chicago, October 27, 1854; Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, fair use doctrine.


8 Responses to “The persistence of misinformation”:

David Cooperberg
“Flagged Revisions” seems like a reasonable solution to unnecessary libel. I would hope that Wikipedia would get its act together soon.
Barry Kort
Lar writes, “There is nothing more frustrating in life than knowing that you can solve a problem, by using the right tool, if only you would be allowed to.”
In scientific review of academic work, the right tool is dialogue and peer review.
In particular, a powerful tool is the ability to ask good questions for which the answers are not yet well constructed, well articulated, or well understood.
Most of us are painfully aware that Wikipedia discussions do not support that essential tool of scholarly peer review. It is also lamentable that Wikipedia Review also disables that affordance, albeit to a lesser extent than Wikipedia or Wikiversity.
A lot of people (especially on Wikipedia) think the right tool is a convenient rule that can be enforced by means of a block or a ban to silence or marginalize rival contributors.
My question for such believers is this: How did you come to believe that exiling rival editors is a sensible practice?
Jon Awbrey
Next Question 1. Who would want a system in which misinformation can persist?
Next Question 2. And Why?
Next Question 3. How come I always have to be the one who asks the next question?
Gregory Kohs
Jon, if you’re really looking for answers, I’ll do my best to (quickly) address your questions. I will also assume that you are (mostly) targeting Wikipedia with your questions.
(1.) Let’s first imagine an encyclopedia system that actually maximizes honest information and reduces misinformation to an infinitesimal rarity. Would people use such an encyclopedia? Absolutely. Would people become engaged with and feel passionately about the process of maintaining such an encyclopedia? Probably not. Therefore, I believe that the governing powers behind Wikipedia want a system where misinformation can persist, because it motivates and engages people, perpetually, to keep actively participating in the challenge presented them. Would you invest your time to play a game of Whack-A-Mole, if you knew that only the red mole pops up, and only every 6 seconds? Or would you rather play a traditional game of Whack-A-Mole, where there is randomness and disarray in the field of moles?
(2.) Engaged and passionate consumers are more easily monetized, even if it means luring them to conferences where they pay registration fees that support the keynote speaker fees, or even if it means occasionally diverting consumers from non-profit projects to highly similar for-profit projects, or even if it means arranging it so that the non-profit project uses tax-advantaged gifts to help pay rent at a highly similar for-profit project. Only engaged and passionate consumers would tolerate such manipulation.
(3.) Because it’s a role at which you excel, Mr. Awbrey.
Jon Awbrey
What you say is true, so partial credit is due, but what I have in mind is the Cui Bono or the Market Research question: “If you could build it, who would beat a path to your door?”
That is, who would be in the market for a system in which one can control which misinformation persists?
Barry Kort
Jon Awbrey asks, “Who would be in the market for a system in which one can control which information persists?”
There are four kinds of professionals who might be in that market.
One is the Public Relations Specialist.
Another is the Propagandist.
A third is a new kind of technician who specializes in Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Their objective is to tweak content so as to make it rise in the Google PageRank calculations.
And a fourth is a new kind of technician who specializes in Content Management Systems (CMS).
Notably, there are two notorious former Wikipedia Admins who were engaged in SEO and CMS and who got into big trouble for their zeal in manipulating the system for unencyclopedic purposes.
Henry Lind
I’m amazed but not at all surprised about the Lincoln story and how long the bogus information remained.
This is very similar to Ebay taking down counterfeit items on multiple occassions from the same sellers only to find the same items posted all over again. Whack a mole indeed…
The motivations of Ebay are slightly different in that they earn commisssions from the sale of these illegal items and apparently they feel that they are shielded by current internet caselaw, so they pretend to take action in order to make it appear that they are making a good faith effort to enforce their own user agreement.
I would be interested to hear about any libel actions against Wikipedia (past or present).I’m assuming that they aren’t too concerned about libel issues?
nathanr|ca » The persistence of misinformation
[...] Akahele This entry was posted by Nathan on April 10th, 2009 at 10:42 and is filed under Editorials, [...]