Although the web is rife with bogus pages and deceptive "information," it's surprising that even content from typically reliable, authoritative sources can't always be trusted.
I don't know about you, but there sure are a lot of relatives of Nigerian heads of state, all of whom would just love to have me help them smuggle millions of dollars out of the country, if I would only give them my bank account information and pay a small processing fee. Fraudbuster Brad Christiansen decided to scam the scammers; see the descriptions of some of his amusing email exchanges at The Brad Christensen Exhibit.
While most people recognize this kind of fraud when they see it, there are other types of misinformation on the web that aren't as easy to spot. The following are a few of the more common ways in which we can be fooled or misled.
You receive an email from a friend telling you that he just sent you a virus and the only way to remove it from your system is to delete specific files.
Alert: Joe may be a nice guy, but do you really trust his advice when it comes to eradicating a computer virus? If you receive an email telling you to look for a particular file on your PC and "IF YOU FIND THE VIRUS, YOU MUST CONTACT ALL THE PEOPLE IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK, SO THEY CAN ERADICATE IT IN THEIR OWN ADDRESS BOOKS", resist.
Symantec, which sells Internet security software, maintains a list of bogus email warnings of new viruses. Before you follow Joe's advice and start deleting files and emailing everyone you know, check the list of hoax warnings.
You find a web page with information that looks reliable, but it may be out of date.
Alert: While most authoritative sites try to keep their information updated and accurate, obsolete information may not get purged, or a warning about the timeliness of the information may not be displayed.
For example, the Library of Congress has "country studies", with information compiled from a number of government sources. A search for Czechoslovakia, for example, will retrieve a page of apparently authoritative information. In fact, there is no listing for the Czech Republic or Slovakia, the two countries that were formed when Czechoslovakia was split back in 1993. The only clue that the Library of Congress information might be inaccurate is the date at the bottom of each page: August 1987.
You discover CitizensForTruth.org, which describes the assassination of Bill Gates on December 2, 1999. In fact, there is even a documentary of his murder, NothingSoStrange.com and extracts from the "Garcetti Report" -- apparently written by the Los Angeles District Attorney's office with conclusions from its investigation of the Gates murder.
Alert: OK, for starters, you have to wonder why you haven't heard about this before. One way of checking to see if this has any validity is to look for corroboration in the more traditional news sources -- newspapers, magazines and trade press. If you go to FindArticles.com and search for any mention of the Garcetti Report (enclose the phrase in quotes), you'll find no articles.
So, just out of curiosity, you might look up the ownership of the domain CitizensForTruth.org. According to Amnesi.com, GMD Studios registered the domain. If you wander over to GMD's web site, you'll see that they describe their documentary as "a fictional piece, despite looking like a documentary from a parallel universe." So, it looks like you can rest easy; Bill Gates was NOT assassinated in 1999.
For a thorough discussion of the various ways that you can get deceived on the Web, check out The Web of Deception, edited by Anne Mintz (Information Today, 2003). Ten industry experts discuss how to recognize deception and misinformation on the web, and how to evaluate web sites for reliability.
Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Washington, DC.
Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet
SearchDay, October 16, 2002
A new book offers an eye-opening expose of the varied types of chicanery, fraud and misinformation that's rife on the Internet -- and what to do if you get stung by it.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.