Internet for research? Question, compare and verify
Clues to accuracy
By Cindy Stiff
Posted: May 13, 2003
An expert on lies and deception on the Internet says she
believes in free speech but that no one has figured out the
online equivalent to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater
when there is no fire.
"I think there will be a test of what constitutes that equivalent
on the Internet," Anne Mintz told Chips Quinn Scholars during
Spring 2003 orientation at the Freedom Forum.
Mintz, director of knowledge management at Forbes Inc., said
journalists should monitor information they take from the
Internet because people rely on newspapers for accuracy. She
gave examples of what she called savvy Internet scams and
intentionally misleading information and listed ways journalists
could avoid being duped.
"Some sites sink a lot of money into being slick," she said.
"I say the more gullible we get, the more we need the media
Mintz, editor of Web of Deception: Misinformation on the
Internet, used www.martinlutherking.org
as an example of a misleading site. The site does not come
from the King family but refers to Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. "as a modern-day plastic god" and praises My Awakening,
a book by David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader and
Mintz said she found no incorrect information on the site
but saw it as unbalanced and misleading.
A dot-org designation leads people to assume a site must
be credible. "Savvy Internet users will become suspicious,
but people without experience and knowledge might not," she
She showed another site that mimicked the World Trade Association
so closely that only the most astute user would notice the
"How do you know that media, whether print, broadcast or
online, check facts for accuracy and context?" Mintz
asked. "Not all of them do."
In September, a television news report claimed that a study
released by the World Health Organization showed blondes would
be extinct within 200 years. "It's a stupid (study) to be
spending money on," Mintz said, "and it's phony."
Although the World Health Organization denied it, the report
could remain in cyberspace for years to come.
So Mintz's first tip for figuring out fact from fiction on
the Internet came from a quote from Paul Maidment, executive
editor of Forbes.com: "Any story that's too good to
check, you want to check."
Mintz also showed two sites that demonstrate the difficulty
of getting accurate information. Both deal with Kennewick
Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found along the banks of the
Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash., in 1996.
The question is whether the bones are of the same race as
American Indians. Scientists want to examine the remains,
but an American Indian tribe in the area wants to bury the
bones. A court has ruled in favor of the scientists, but the
case is being appealed.
Mintz found two sites with information that supports evaluating
the skeleton for scientific knowledge. But the reasons for
their stands are drastically different.
One site, www.friendsofpast.org,
links to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural
The other, www.newnation.org,
connects to News from the Confederacy and pro-white immigration
"Why am I bringing this up?" she asked. "I want
to demonstrate that just because they support the same result
doesn't mean the information is similarly accurate. There
are profound economic implications for the Native American
tribes if it turns out that there is a lot of evidence that
non-Native American peoples populated the continent before
Native Americans did."
Mintz's examples drew gasps from the audience.
"It's a warning," said Tilde Herrera, a San Francisco State
University graduate and intern at The Oakland (Calif.)
Tribune. "This reinforced the policy of making that (extra)
phone call. You can't trust even what you think are official
Chris Young, a University of California-Los Angeles graduate
and intern at The Bulletin in Bend, Ore., said he often
has used the Internet to get background information.
"I've heard of fraud and hoax sites. But what she's talking
about is much worse," he said.
Mintz used a New Yorker cartoon to sum up the need
to question, compare and verify. The cartoon shows a high-tech
dog commenting on Internet anonymity to an offline canine
colleague: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
Cindy Stiff is the ASNE/APME Fellows career coach. In
her Freedom Forum role, she helps train Chips Quinn Scholars.
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