Thursday, July 15, 2010

Beware of erroneous information on the web

With newspaper and magazine articles, most readers trust the companies behind them to put out truthful reports. After all, these publications employ professional writers and editors, and often fact-checkers.
With the World Wide Web, it’s a different story entirely. Citizen journalists, amateur bloggers, people and groups with political and social agendas, and even pranksters are out there writing articles along with professional journalism organizations. With all those new voices, a lot of misinformation is getting spread.
Wikipedia is an amazing resource, but educators and news organizations have learned the hard way that its model of an encyclopedia anyone can edit is flawed. Errors, sometimes malicious, are introduced and don’t get caught fast enough to stop them from being disseminated.
Check out PC World’s article on “The 15 Biggest Wikipedia Blunders,” published in August 2009. Also, read “PSA: Don’t believe everything you read on the Web” from Yahoo News, posted June 30.
At its best, Wikipedia is a great first stop for people researching a topic. Hopefully they can find links to other resources through Wikipedia that verify the information it presents.
Modern urban legends and erroneous political propaganda are often spread virally through forwarded e-mails. A visit to,, and often can determine the veracity of such a report. But many people forward an inflammatory or shocking e-mail without doing such a check.
A public relations person a year or so back e-mailed me a pitch that referenced a speech that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates supposedly had given called “Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.” A quick check of revealed that Gates had never given the speech attributed to him. The erroneous report has been circulating on the Internet for years.
The surging popularity of Twitter and Facebook have brought countless examples of fake stories and rumors passed off as news. Both allow people to post quick updates and discuss current events in real-time online.
Britain’s Daily Mail was fooled by a fake Steve Jobs Twitter account last month. It wrote a story based on a tweet by “ceoSteveJobs” that Apple was going to recall the iPhone 4. Jobs doesn’t have a Twitter account.
Erroneous tweets also led to news reports in March that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was retiring. (See the Los Angeles Times account of the incident.)
Twitter is a favorite medium for people to spread celebrity death rumors. Kanye West is one example of a celebrity reported to be dead on Twitter when he is still alive and rapping.

This is the latest in a series of articles called “The Failed Promise of Digital Content.”

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