The Internet Can Make You a Chump—Forever!

Trouble is, the Internet is rife with misinformation and if you get caught advertently or inadvertently propagating this nonsense in a report, memo, article, letter or book, you will look like a chump. If your careless work finds its way onto the Internet, it will follow you to the grave.

Limbaugh Taken In: The Judge Was Not Loaded for Bear

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Anyone listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Tuesday could be forgiven for thinking that Judge Roger Vinson has the federal government dead in his sights … Apparently, Mr. Limbaugh had fallen prey to an Internet hoax … On Sunday night, and again Monday morning, someone identified only as “Pensacolian” edited Judge Vinson’s Wikipedia entry to include the invented material. The prankster footnoted the entry to a supposed story in
The Pensacola News Journal. The article—like its stated publication date of June 31, 2003—does not exist. The same person who posted the information removed it on Tuesday afternoon, Wikipedia logs show.
—Kevin Sack, The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2010

When I started out as a copywriter, novelist and non-fiction writer, research meant endless clipping of newspapers and magazine articles, schlepping down to a local library to spend hours chasing down leads in books, magazines and scrolling through endless reels newspapers on microfiche. Today, what took five days at the library can be accomplished in 20 minutes from any computer in the world with Internet access.

Trouble is, the Internet is rife with misinformation and if you get caught advertently or inadvertently propagating this nonsense in a report, memo, article, letter or book, you will look like a chump. If your careless work finds its way onto the Internet, it will follow you to the grave.

In the world of research, separating out the bogus from the true takes work.

Example: The Bill Munro Quote
W. Carroll (Bill) Munro was a neighbor of my father’s in upstate New York. A big, gruff, hard-drinking iconoclast, he penned three novels in the 1950s, went into advertising in the era of “Mad Men” and wound up as vice president and marketing director of Pepsico.

Once during a heated discussion in the 1960s at a Saturday night barbeque, Munro snarled a wonderful aphorism that stuck in my brain: “Imitation is the sincerest form of collective stupidity.”

In 2004, I used it for the first time in my book, “PRICELINE.COM: A Layman’s Guide to Manipulating the Media” (which sold a total of 15 copies, so not a lot of people saw it). On Aug. 31, 2006 I used it in my Business Common Sense e-zine, and have used it several times since—in my “Famous Last Words” column in Target Marketing and on Twitter.

If you put that line in quotation marks and Google it, you’ll get 12 hits. Four of the entries are mine, while the other 8 are by complete strangers to me who picked up the quote and used it with attribution to Munro. Never heard of any of them, but here they are:

I am the only person in the world who heard Munro say this. Yet, not one of the eight checked with me to see if it were real or pure fiction. One of these characters picked it up from me and the others most likely picked it up from that guy or each other.

For all anybody knows, Munro and his line could be made up out of my head—pure fiction—yet business people are quoting it to their readers as if it were fact.

When something is repeated often enough in a number of venues, it becomes the truth.

It is the same principle as a forged Picasso painting. As it is bought and sold over the years, it acquires a longer and longer pedigree—so-called provenance in the art world—and after years in the marketplace, it becomes the real thing, no questions asked, even though it’s an out-‘n’-out fake.

Rule No. 1 for the Web: Beware of Provenance
There’s this guy I know in Phoenix—a political extremist, who forwards to me the most scurrilous, inflammatory stories that validate his pet hates with comments that always say, “OMG!” or “See, I told you so!”

However, when I put a phrase from his diatribe in quotation marks and paste it into Google, I get bunch of cuckoo entries from bloggers, screamers and nut cases, who have picked up the story and repeated it verbatim from each other. The busy little Google spiders capture this fiction and add it to the vast maw of data out in the ether. A couple of Google entries, and it fogs the mirror. With six entries it grows legs. Fifteen Google entries turn it into a living, breathing monster that becomes harder and harder to disprove.

Can it be found on the website of a legitimate newspaper, broadcast station, wire service or commentator? Nah.

Eventually it may show up on the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s, honchoed by widely respected gumshoe journalist Brooks Jackson, who will do in-depth research and expose the story for what it is—a load of crap.

By then it’s too late. It will have made its way into the speeches and writings of the extreme Left or extreme Right, nobody having bothered to check it out.

The Wikipedia Trap
School and college students are constantly being nailed for turning in papers with facts (and frequently plagiarized copy) lifted verbatim from the highly-touted Wikipedia—the online source of all knowledge that describes itself thusly:

Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference websites, attracting nearly 78 million visitors monthly as of January 2010. There are more than 91,000 active contributors working on more than 16,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages. As of today, there are 3,417,066 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.

Trouble is, many of the volunteer editors and writers have their own agendas and are dishonest propagandists. The Rush Limbaugh silliness (see “IN THE NEWS” above) is the most recent. Below are three of the entries in the dossier of Wikipedia flimflam entries in my private archive.

• Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was caught red-handed changing his own Wikipedia biography 18 times, which included deleting his co-founder, Larry Sanger.

• “Political operatives are covertly rewriting—or defacing—candidates’ biographical entries to make the boss look good or the opponent look ridiculous.” —Shannon McCffrey, Associated Press

• “WikiScanner revealed that CIA computers were used to edit an entry on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A graphic on casualties was edited to add that many figures were estimated and were not broken down by class. Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited by CIA computers to expand his career history and discuss the merits of a Vietnam War rural pacification program that he headed.” —Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters

The list of mis- and disinformation uncovered in Wikipedia is lengthy and embarrassing.

In 2007, the Middlebury College History Department banned the citing of Wikipedia as a research source.

Make a note to do likewise.

Otherwise, you can get caught with your pants down as Rush Limbaugh did.

Not a pretty image.

Takeaways to Consider

  • Wikipedia has enormous value as a starting point, a lead generator and perhaps a wiring diagram.
  • Never trust Wikipedia as the sole source for your research—on anything.
  • The only thing worse than no information is bad information.
  • Before hitting the “Publish” button, make sure it is not the opinion—stated as fact—of a wacko zealot or prankster that has been endlessly repeated by other wacko zealots and pranksters.
  • Go with it only if you can find it in a reputable source—AP, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Huffington Post, TIME, The Economist, etc.
  • And go with it only if you have seen it for yourself in that original, reputable source. And preferably two of them.
  • Download it from that source—including its URL—and file it away in your private archive in case you are called on to defend it.
  • If you are caught assigning truth to a bogus story or quote by a wacko zealot, you are a chump. If you cite one or more reputable source that have repeated the story as fact—and can prove it with the URLs—you are off the hook (unless that source has printed a retraction).

Web Sites Related to This Edition
Limbaugh taken in by Wikipedia Hoax

Brooks Jackson’s

Wikipedia founder edits his own bio

Political dirty tricksters manipulate Wikipedia

CIA, FBI computers used for Wikipedia edits

Congress caught making false entries in Wikipedia

Middlebury College History Dept. bans citing Wikipedia as a research source

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