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Using the Internet for research? Question, compare and verify

Clues to accuracy

By Cindy Stiff
For chipsquinn.org

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 to check."

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 politician.

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 said.

She showed another site that mimicked the World Trade Association so closely that only the most astute user would notice the difference.

"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 History. The other, www.newnation.org, connects to News from the Confederacy and pro-white immigration sites.

"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 Web sites."

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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