Intentional Misinformation on the Internet

Anne Mintz (L) and Eli Edwards

A standing-room-only audience turned out to hear Anne Mintz and Eli Edwards discuss intentional misinformation on the Internet.  Anne concentrated on the recent rise in criminal activity, and Eli discussed how extremist views spread.  Following their presentations, Anne read a presentation from a speaker who was unable to attend.  Anne began by saying that the Internet is a Petri Dish for the growth and spread of misinformation.  Some of it is innocent, but a lot is intentional, harmful, or even criminal.  Anne is the author of a book published about 10 years ago, The Web of Deception, but now intentional misinformation goes much broader and beyond individual websites.

According to Consumer Reports, the annual damage from spyware and other forms of misinformation is in the billions of dollars, so this is not a small issue.  For example, the Enron scandal began with intentional misinformation in a proxy statement, which was exposed by a 30 year old journalist, and the resulting economic impact was huge.  Credit agencies were heavily implicated in the financial crisis of 2008 with inaccurate ratings and intentional misinformation, and a respected accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, was forced into bankruptcy as a result.  The rise of social media has enabled criminal activity to spread far and wide.  We do not know how widespread this is.  One study reported that 26% of parents have exposed their children to predators by posting their names and photos.  And some people post on Facebook when they will not be home, thus exposing themselves to robberies.

Social media has few editors or fact checkers, so it has become a common place for sophisticated criminal activity.  Many job seekers fall victim to criminals preying on their vulnerability.  In another scam, ads are placed by offshore money laundering operations looking for US citizens to engage in illegal activity such as opening bank accounts in false names and transferring the money to the offshore criminals. The citizens pay the price of this activity with prison terms.

Identity theft has become a much bigger business than ever before.  More than 347 million records have been compromised in the US since 2005.  The Haiti earthquake spawned nonexistent charities to siphon relief money through false websites with fake addresses and phone numbers.  The FTC warns people about such scams within hours of a major disaster.

Information warfare is also used on social media.  During the recent Egyptian uprising, activists protested, then loyalists created a shouting match on Facebook, causing the government to cut off Internet access.  More than 23 million people were affected, costing Egypt millions of dollars.  In another incident, a computer worm, Stuxnet, attacked nuclear reactor computer control networks.  Intentional misinformation is evolving in the non-physical world.  A growing problem for law enforcement is the development of sophisticated computer networks allowing attacks from outside the US.  Technology enables the misrepresentation of information as truth which then spreads rapidly.

Knowing how to think for ourselves and act accordingly is critical for a democracy.  We must find a way to agree on facts on which we base our decisions.  What was once something connected to individual websites has evolved into a much more dangerous picture.  Anyone using the Internet must use sound critical thinking.

Eli Edwards noted that supposedly our society is post-racial, multicultural and tolerant.  However, in many areas there is still an “us vs. them” mentality, and people use the Internet to propagate extremist views.  These views spread in three ways:

  1. Many extremists got their ideas at a young age as they were playing Internet games.  For example,  in the Border Patrol game, the player tries to prevent Mexicans from crossing the Rio Grande by any possible means.  The game contains racist language.  It was created for white-power racist sites and leaked into mainstream gaming sites that attract casual players looking for a quick game to play while on the web.  Other games are run by extremist sites like the KKK which encourages kids to use them to write history papers for school.  This sort of thing is meant to desensitize and manipulate the young.  “Gamification” is a process of putting game mechanics into online work or social networks, thus blurring the lines between what is fun or frivolous, and work or more serious venues.
  2. Political debate is turned into histronic breastbeating, particularly at the intersection of Islam and American politics.  People questioning Obama’s birthplace who think his beliefs were kept secret as he campaigned for President are an example.  Are these rumors latent, waiting to recur in the heat of the 2012 election campaign?  On the internet, nothing really dies. In moments of fear and hysteria, facts can be distorted and reasoned discussion can turn to shrill and bullying.
  3. Lies and Pseudo-Statistics can be manipulated.  Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, a prolific author, and professor at the London School of Economics, was known for a blog written for Psychology Today.  He published graphs of statistics supposedly showing the physical attractiveness of people of various races.  The scales of the graphs were different and distorted the data as well as the margin of error.  Kanazawa took the data as objective rather than subjective.  Reaction from the blogosphere was swift and vehement, and his blog has been discontinued.

The use of authority to promote extremist beliefs is exactly the sort of thing of which information professionals must be aware.  Our critical thinking skills are put to the test, and some things are designed to try and slip under our radar.  Social media are being used heavily in dissemination of extremist views.  The odds are that we will have to confront this sometime.

Anne Mintz presented a paper on political misinformation by Laura Gordon-Murnane of BNA, who was unable to attend.  Much rumor, innuendo, and gossip never gets checked.  Many people appear uninformed when they have been intentionally misinformed. Reasons for this are:

  • Distrust of government is high, which has stopped it from helping the American people.
  • It is almost impossible to correct false information once it gets out on the Internet.  When we are evaluating political information, we must process it to come to our conclusions.  This is difficult and is being derailed by the misinformation thrown at us.  Citizens tend to resist facts and use inaccurate information to form preferences.
  • The mainstream press plays a role in spreading misinformation.  The news industry have been under assault because of the rise of digital information, declining readership, lower profitability, all leading to a mistrust of the media.  Many people are angry and deeply skeptical of what they see in the media.
  • There is a high cost of these activities.  Many news bureaus have closed, and many news people have lost their jobs.

To fight political misinformation, we must demand that politicians hold to the facts, use fact checking tools and media organizations, political blogs, and accountability and transparency organizations that watch the media sites.

Here are some criteria to use in identifying political misinformation.

Gordon-Murane’s presentation contained a number of slides with useful websites.  These will be posted on the SLA News Division website.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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