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Week of 1.4.08

The Misinformation Superhighway?

Anne Mintz The editor of Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet, Anne Mintz is also the Director of Knowledge Management at Forbes Inc. and is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism.


NOW: What prompted you to write a book about deception and misinformation on the Web? What do you hope readers take away from your book, "Web of Deception?"

ANNE MINTZ: My hope was that people searching the Internet would become more aware of the scams, hoaxes and hate sites and would apply critical thinking skills to evaluating the results of their searches.

NOW: The dissemination of misleading or deceptive information about political candidates is nothing new to U.S. politics. Do you think it is any worse today than it has been in the past?

AM: I don't think it's worse; I think it's easier. The implosion of George Allen's campaign for the U.S. Senate from Virginia last year after he used the word "Macaca" showed us how easy it is to disseminate any information about a candidate—in that case he really said it. And, he was undone by cell phone technology, as well as the Internet. However, I can imagine a doctored video at some point in 2008 that would be hard to disprove. This would make it "worse than in the past" because technology lets tech-savvy people do it rather anonymously (or post it from outside the U.S.).

NOW: How has the Internet affected the spreading of political rumors or smear campaigns?

AM: In one way, it's easier, as I just said. However, it's also easier to publicly debunk such rumors and disseminate factually accurate counter-campaigns.

NOW: How do you evaluate the validity of a website? What are some of the criteria you use?

AM: I ask myself "Does this make sense?" Common sense is sometimes the best indicator of quality or lack there of. Check a WHOIS database to find out to whom a website is registered. Look further (on Google, perhaps) to find out more information about the organization or person to whom it's registered. If it isn't easy to confirm who claims ownership of the site, be suspicious. Is it well written or are there spelling and grammar errors? Is it clear on the web page when the information was published? Is it current? Look at web.archive.org to see older versions of the site. It's possible one can glean valuable information that way.

NOW: What sites do you recommend for getting the most reliable news and election coverage?

AM: The Librarians' Internet Index has a section on Politics, sub-section on the 2008 election. They vet sites before they link to them. Full disclosure: My employer owns 51 percent of this site. Realclearpolitics.com presents political stories, polls and other information in an objective manner. I personally watch or read the weekly transcript of Reliable Sources (Howard Kurtz on CNN) for discussion of the coverage of many issues, particularly political ones.

I think that the mainstream media will be reporting on information from the blogs and sorting through those postings for us this year, rather than letting them drive the stories. Look for them to be more aggressive about vetting rumors. Most of these candidates have already been investigated pretty thoroughly by the press, bloggers and people trying to defeat them, so there shouldn't be too many surprises this year.

Searcher Magazine's November-December 2007 issue (can be found on Nexis or Factiva) carried a great article by Laura Gordon- Murnane "The 51st State: The State of Online. The Presidential Campaign 2008—Candidates and News Sources." Part 2 of this excellent piece will run in the February 2008 issue: "The 51st State: The State of Online. Tech-Tools for the American Voter and the 2008 Congressional Elections."

NOW: What sites are good for fact-checking and debunking rumors (related to politics)?

AM: I think it's useful to know if a site is sponsored by someone (or an organization) that has given to a campaign. For that I go to opensecrets.org for federal campaigns (from The Center for Responsive Politics) and to followthemoney.org (National Institute on Money in State Politics) for state and local campaigns. I also recommend looking at the candidates' campaign websites. While they are going to be highly flattering of the candidate, they will likely also address negative rumors and debunk them.

NOW: Do you think people question information they read on the computer less than in the paper?

AM: In the past, I'd have immediately said "Yes, no question" but I'm rethinking that. I think people understand the political leanings of their local papers and view information there with a corrective lens to neutralize the bias (if they wish to). They've now had years of experience with spam for lots of unwanted e-mails and have figured out that anyone can (and will) write just about anything. They will begin to do figure that out about Internet sites. I think they know that "On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog" (courtesy of The New Yorker).

NOW: What questions do you recommend people ask themselves in order to think more critically about what they read?

AM: Has the source of this information been identified by name and affiliation? If the information comes from an anonymous source, ask yourself why they are willing to speak for the record but not by name. Ask yourself why such unsourced information is being used by the "publisher" of the information. Can this be confirmed by other sources? Has anyone else published this with confirmed sources? Who are the sources of this information and are they credible? If there's only one source, be suspicious. Do the sources of the information have an inherent bias for/against the candidate they are speaking about?

NOW: Do you think rumors on the Web can damage a candidate's chance of getting elected? What are counter measures candidates can take? How do you think the rumor mill affects how people decide to vote?

AM: This has more to do with bloggers than specific websites. Bloggers per se are not a problem. However, rumors on the Web don't get there without a source, and many rumors are put out there by bloggers. Bloggers are individuals with very loud megaphones, and there are millions of them. Some of those are writing about politics, and it's impossible to counter every statement by one of them. Of course, there have been stories debunked by bloggers as well, making them part of the solution at times. We need to evaluate the information from blogs the same way we evaluate all other statements by sources.

I'm not sure this was initially a Web rumor, but the Web sure spread it quickly enough without any financial cost to the accusers. The Swift Boat Veterans seem to have done a great deal of damage to John Kerry's presidential campaign. The common wisdom is that he didn't reply fast enough or vehemently enough to the charges. In comparison, the Hillary Clinton campaign doesn't let 24 hours go by without a reply to an attack. I would imagine that it goes the same for attacks by well-known bloggers. Because there have been members of Congress who have been taken down by true rumors on blogs they have to be taken seriously. (Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigning from the US House of Representatives after inappropriate e-mails to interns were made public comes to mind) It follows that false rumors of that nature can also damage a person's employment and future chance of employment, including political candidates and elected officials. It will be interesting to see if any bloggers get sued for slander or libel (I'm not a lawyer), because of false statements they make on the Web. This is as yet untested.

NOW: How would you go about tracing the origins of a rumor on the Web? Let's say for example, the rumor about Hillary Clinton, that she refused to meet with a group of mothers whose sons died in Iraq (for more info, see "Mud in your inbox")

AM: Sometimes it helps to start with search engines like Ask.com and Google. They are useful for confirming or debunking the rumors that have been circulated. One needs to use critical, skeptical judgment when viewing the "results" list—but that's a really good way to get to the sites like truthorfiction.com, mediamatters.org and others.

Based on over 20 years as a professional librarian doing research for a media organization, I find anything from Congressional Quarterly or Facts on File to be accurate and credible because they are neutral and fact-based. Therefore, the Politifact.com site from the St. Petersburg Times/CQ is a credible site because CQ (Congressional Quarterly) is one of the sponsors and they are neutral on the news—they just report it. Another site I would check is Urban Legends. They have a section on politics, which I'm sure will grow over the next year. They research and document their findings on major rumors, although not all are here.

NOW: How do you think mainstream news sites should report on rumors? Which sites do it best/worst?

AM: Mainstream news should report on news, not rumors. Only if the fact of the rumor's existence is newsworthy should it be reported. If the details of the rumor have been confirmed by the media organization, then the facts only should be reported. No examples come to mind.

NOW: What is the danger of disinformation on the web during the 2008 Election?

AM: The danger of disinformation is always the same, in an election or in any other aspect of life, namely that people will make bad decisions based on bad information. And seeing the chance to profit by those bad decisions will motivate liars and cheats to lie and cheat all the more. The Internet has made it possible to disseminate it more quickly and cheaply, so I'm sure we'll start seeing more of it soon. I expect that bloggers and the mainstream media will be on top of this, given recent experiences.

NOW: What can you learn from checking out sites that do create and spread rumors? How or does it inform public discourse?

AM: I think when one goes to a site that has a rumor that is suspicious and one sees the other content on the site, it can bring perspective to the rumor itself. For example, there was recently a full page ad in the NYT during the negotiations between the UAW and General Motors. It was from an organization called unionfacts.org. Only when I went to that site did I see that the group running the ad was anti-union.

NOW: Do you think the rumor mill on the Web is changing the face of journalism—regarding the tension between "getting it right" and "getting it first?"

AM: I think it might take one egregious example followed by a whopping lawsuit in which the target of the rumor prevails. I don't have a specific scenario in mind, but it would certainly make "getting it first" less of a priority than "getting it right."

However, lawsuits take time and the elections are only 10 months away. It reminds me of the statement attributed to Abraham Lincoln (and also to P. T. Barnum!): "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

The problem with web-based deception in an election year is the "time" factor. If you can fool enough of the people by Election Day, you could take an advantage. On the other hand, people don't like being fooled and some voters can have long memories and it's only 2 years to the next election.

Bloggers have taken over getting it first, and mainstream media have begun conceding that by integrating "good" blogging into their content and then focusing their own staffs on "getting it right."

By the way, that's another way of checking on sources, let the mainstream media pick your blog input.

NOW: Do you think the rumor mill is out of our control?

AM: The rumor mill has always been out of our control. What's definitely in our control is the ability to check out the details of the rumor and debunk it publicly. At some point, I think we'll want an internet version of candidates stating, "I'm Chris Candidate and I approve what my supporters are doing to elect me."

NOW: How do you think rumors get started?

AM: Did you ever play "Telephone" as a child? Sometimes rumors get started quite unintentionally. People mishear what they are being told and repeat what they think they heard. The result can be as dangerous as intentional misinformation. Then there are the intentional rumors. Re-read "All the President's Men" and you'll see great examples of intentional rumors spread by graduates of law schools. And, we know that wasn't new to American politics in the early 1970s. In the early years of the U.S., Alexander Hamilton was the victim of rumors (apparently true) that he was having an affair, and was forced from public life. Intentional rumors are originated and spread by people intent on getting what they want no matter what the means.

If what the voters want is an honest election, it's their job to use the Web to keep it that way. For every ugly falsehood the Web can carry, there's a way to use the Web to find the truth.