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Cyber Misinformation: Think Before You Hit "Forward"

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Stop and think!Shortly after the devastating Haiti quake, a conspiracy theory was born. An article appeared on the web, dated January 14, 2010, titled "'US Quake Test Goes "Horribly Wrong", Leaves 500,000 Dead In Haiti' By: Sorcha Faal, and as reported to her Western Subscribers". The opening paragraph sets the stage: "A grim report prepared by the Russian Northern Fleet for Prime Minister Putin is stating today that the catastrophic earthquake that has devastated the Island of Haiti was the 'clear result' of a United States Navy test of one of its 'earthquake weapons' planned to be used by the Americans upon the Persian Nation of Iran but had gone 'horribly wrong'."

It didn't take long for this story to spread far and wide, becoming a popular e-mail forward, forum post, and topic of various blogs and articles. It was even taken up by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's mouthpiece on the Venezuelan government website, and then covered by Fox News due to this Venezuelan report. However, it was shortly removed from the government site, although a Google cache of the report remains intact.

A closer scrutiny of this story perhaps reveals the reason it was quickly removed from the Venezuelan government's site. Sorcha Faal, Russian Academy of Science member, the author of the story, does not exist. She wrote no thesis and has published no research ever, despite her purported doctorate degree. Although a biography of her can be found on the Internet, it is entirely fabricated. Yet, the non-existent lady is a prolific author of stories of the decline of civilization that often spread all over the web. A few other titles authored by "Sorcha Faal" include:

  • US President Orders Military To Begin Jailing All Civilian Protestors To War
  • Putin Orders Russian Military Forces To Attack US Forces During Iran Invasion????
  • Russia, China Order Forces To Highest Alert As US Forces Mass On Iranian Border
  • Pravda: Imus Fired After He Threatened to Reveal 9/11 secrets
  • Massive ULF 'Blast' Detected In US Bridge Collapse Catastrophe
  • US 'Shoot on Site' Order Issued For Escaping Americans
  • Australia To Imprison All Muslims In Concentration Camps
  • American Spy Satellite Downed In Peru
  • 'Ship of Giants' Said Attacked By Israel in Strike on Syria

All of these stories appear to be figments of the imaginary Sorcha's imagination. Sorcha Faal, it turns out, is really a man with an agenda of making money. While some of Sorcha Faal's articles take on a life of their own and eventually end up being reported by well-known news sites after undergoing so many permutations that their origins have become obscured, they all seem to originate at websites owned by David Booth, American computer programmer, and author of numerous doomsday books. Apparently, spreading doomsday rumors on the Internet associated with an academic insider "author" on his website is a tactic to sell his books and the views they contain. David Booth uses Sorcha Faal as a false identity because his own credibility has been ruined by his lies, and because a Russian academic is relatively harder to track down.

Perhaps the larger and more pertinent story here, however, is the wildfire spread of the Haiti quake hoax that he created – particularly in Muslim circles. It seems that many Muslims love stories that depict Western governments as evil secret societies controlling everything, and are predisposed to believe them and eagerly pass them on to their forum buddies, e-mail group friends, blog readers, Facebook friends, and anyone else we can think of. Rarely do we ever think to check the veracity of the stories before passing them on. We enjoy disparaging a "bad guy" so much that we don't even question if the disparagement is warranted or true.

In truth, when a story takes on such a life of its own as this latest David Booth hoax did, sifting through its numerous manifestations to determine that it is really entirely made-up by someone trying to sell his books is not a trivial task. However, that does not pardon casual Internet users from checking various hoax websites such as Snopes.com before pressing "Forward" – that move alone would cut down on the number of misinformation bombs flooding our inboxes considerably.

Some will likely suggest, in true conspiracy theory fashion, that the Internet hoax verification sites cannot fully be trusted, and that they might be used by secret societies and governments in their own misinformation campaigns. However, the fact that the stories get out at all is only evidence that no one has full control of the Internet and what it contains. What readers see online, in print, and on television, even on some "reputable" news sites, is not necessarily true, because even reputable sites sometimes report unsubstantiated rumors with questionable sources, trying to be the "first" to break a new story. The media, especially the Internet, are not controlled for accuracy, and the quantity of proliferation does not always correlate with veracity.

Internet hoaxes and lies can do real damage when rumors upon rumors are taken by readers as fact – just look at effects of "coverage" of the Green movement in Iran in 2009, for example, or any of the numerous stories of bullied youths resorting to drastic measures like suicide in response to lies spread about them online.

The moral of this story is perhaps that people in general should be much more skeptical of what they read and should be much less quick to send on information that we do not personally know to be true. Wanting something to be true, believing it could be true, thinking that something like it, at least, must be true, and having actual knowledge of its truth are not equal. We have a moral responsibility regarding what we propagate with our tongues and use of the Internet. We also should have the intelligence and critical thinking skills to realize that not all is as it is represented to be on the Internet. The Internet is the modern gossip/propaganda mill, and gossip couched in official-looking titles and headers is still trash. Many wonderful and great things are on the Internet, but to paraphrase Shakespeare, not all that glitters is gold. The only way to cut down on Internet pollution is if each of us individually does his part to stop passing around trash. Think again before hitting Forward – when in doubt, throw it out.

Author of this article: Masooma Beatty
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