Who can you trust?

For researchers, news junkies and enquiring minds, the Internet is a mixed blessing.

On the positive side of the ledger, almost anyone can now publish news stories, commentary and analysis – the sources for information are virtually limitless. The downside is that almost anyone can now publish

news stories, commentary and analysis – the sources for misinformation are virtually limitless.

As the song says, you can’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see. Perhaps the maxim has to be updated for the Internet era. (The song, incidentally, is a ’70s vintage number called That’s the Way It Goes, by some one-hit wonder whose name I can’t be bothered looking up. I’m sure I could find it on the Web – but there’s the likelihood I’d get the wrong answer anyway. Which is kinda my point. But I digress.)

The Internet has elevated the sway of the urban myth immeasurably. Ludicrous apocryphal stories that used to take months, even years to circulate and occupy the more dubious corner of Common Knowledge now take root in days or hours – witness stories of AIDS-tainted needles left in payphone coin-return slots and bizarre gang initiations precipitated by flashing headlights.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was on the receiving end of a hysterical warning from an otherwise credible source regarding the mythical sulfnbk.exe virus, now enjoying its second life cycle. The virus that supposedly deposits the .exe file on your computer doesn’t exist. Users are warned to delete the file – which is in fact an integral part of the Windows operating system – and, of course, circulate the warning to everyone in their address books. It’s a malicious version of the original virus-that-wasn’t, Good Times (hilariously mocked in a warning here, among other places. It’s even become a song not called That’s the Way It Goes by a band whose name I don’t have to look up, Laika. Trust me. I didn’t get it off the Web).

Even the mainstream press is sometimes guilty of unwarranted credulity. In 1997, humour site Topfive.com published a list of supposed Cantonese translations of movie titles (personal fave: Batman and Robin translates to “”Come to My Cave and Wear This Rubber Codpiece, Cute Boy””). A year later, it turned up as fact in a New York Times article. Red-faced retractions notwithstanding, a year later, Peter Jennings read it as fact on an ABC nightly newscast.

My favourite Internet-as-bad-source tale? A friend who shall remain nameless was freelancing for a now-defunct Internet magazine in the early ’90s, when the Web was beginning to seize the public imagination. One of his colleagues, fresh from journalism school, was assigned a story about chat rooms. She conducted a fascinating online interview on the subject, wrote up the story and considered it a job well done.

After the story went to print, a reader alerted the editor to the fact that the cub reporter had unwittingly interviewed a bot.

True story. I didn’t get it from the Web.

dwebb@plesman.com

Though it covers the Web in great detail, everything that Dave Webb edits in eBusiness Journal is true

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