Web Hoaxes and Misinformation

Submitted by Steven on Fri, 09/15/2000 - 09:11

Be sure to check out the feature article in this months Searcher Magazine. Paul S. Piper discusses many aspects of web site evaluation and misinformation. There is also a nice list of sites that track these Internet hoaxes. A must read for public librarians.\"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.\"

While misinformation 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...\"

...\"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.\"