By now, virtually nobody believes that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true. Clearly the nature of the Internet makes it easy for misinformation — accidentally incorrect information — and disinformation — deliberately incorrect information — to slip through.
One recent incident shines interesting light on the problem of disinformation, self-promotion, and Internet history.
In early September 2014 The Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com), a high-quality online news and opinion site launched in 2005, posted a series on the history of email. Soon afterward, it removed the series, posting this explanation:
“Readers and media commentators alerted us to factual and sourcing issues in the series and, after an internal review, we removed it from the site.”
The Huffington Post’s fatal flaw was publishing as fact the fiction of VA Shiva Ayyadurai, an American email entrepreneur born in India who for years has claimed to have invented email.
According to the retracted article, quoting Ayyadurai, “The reality is this: in 1978, there was a 14-year-old boy and he was the first to create an electronic office system. He called it email, a term that had never been used before, and then he went on and got official recognition by the U.S. government.”
Ayyadurai was referring to his naming an electronic version of an interoffice mail system “EMAIL” and to his copyrighting this name in 1982. However, the generic version of email had been around for seven years, since U.S. Department of Defense contractor Ray Tomlinson sent a test email to himself in 1971 (openmap.bbn.com/~tomlinso/ray/home.html).
Email was standardized by RFC 524 in 1973 (tools.ietf.org/html/rfc524).
RFC stands for Request for Comments and is a publication of the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Society.
Tomlinson doesn’t claim to be email’s inventor, acknowledging others’ contributions as well. Ayyadurai has no such modesty, at his own website (vashiva.com) and elsewhere. Ayyadurai is behind a number of different businesses, including EchoMail (echomail.com), an email management company.
The Huffington Post isn’t the only publication to have been snookered in this way. In 2012 the Washington Post also falsely reported that Ayyadurai had invented email. In 2011 Time Magazine did the same. The bogus claims keep resurfacing, getting refuted and resurfacing again.
The technology blog Gizmodo provides more details on the issue (gizmodo.com/5887480/the-inventor-of-email-did-not-invent-email).
Though disinformation and misinformation exist in both the worlds of online and traditional journalism, standards for accuracy are weaker online. There are typically few or no gatekeepers to check if someone is exaggerating to impress others, neglecting to tell the whole truth by omitting important information, downplaying the significance of something known to be crucial, saying something in a deliberately ambiguous way to provide an out or telling a barefaced lie.
As a general rule, texting and discussion areas are less reliable than websites because less care goes into creating the information on them.
But everyone on occasion makes mistakes, even when considerable effort goes into avoiding them.
One reality of the online world is that people can position themselves as experts, and many do. You frequently see, for instance, laypeople playing doctor or lawyer, offering opinions about complicated subjects, when it’s clear that all they’ve done is Googled a medical article or court case and don’t have a clue how to interpret its meaning or what its limitations are.
As a reader, you should be skeptical, not cynical, about information you come across, whether its source is a traditional or new media outlet.
Ask yourself “Is it true?” Then also ask:
- Does the site look professional? If a website is carefully constructed rather than slopped together, chances are greater that the information within it will be accurate. But looks can and do deceive. A flashy site can merely be a marketing front for quack health remedies or an illegal pyramid scheme.
- Who’s behind the information? Different sources employ different levels of thoroughness in research and fact-checking and different levels of objectivity.
- Why is the person or organization presenting the information? Sources may have agendas, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden.
- Is the information paid for? Ads and advertorials, whether labeled or not, are inherently less credible than other information.
- Does the information diverge from my current understanding? If it diverges widely and may affect an important decision, try to verify the same information with at least two other sources, and make sure those sources aren’t copycatting the information from the same source.
Whether online or off, the byword is, and will likely always remain, Caveat lector — Let the reader beware.