Copyright 1999 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
Sacramento Bee, June 14, 1999, METRO FINAL
SECTION: METRO; Pg. B1
LENGTH: 1368 words
HEADLINE: IT'S A TANGLED WEB OF TRUTH, RUMOR WE WEAVE
BYLINE: Carlos Alcala, Bee Staff Writer
The Internet is packed with good information.
It is also riddled with misinformation.
As Internet traffic continues to grow, librarians, educators
and all kinds of information consumers are struggling to
deal with holes in the Net.
To some observers, bad information is worse than the spread
of electronic pornography, not because it is more harmful,
but because it is more insidious.
"I'm far less worried about pornography. Pornography is
instantly recognizable," said Blanche Woolls, director of
the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose
Bad information, on the other hand, doesn't always announce
itself. On the contrary, it may cloak itself in
These are a few such sites on the World Wide Web:
* A site masquerading as a scientific paper
writes about problems with California's (nonexistent) Velcro
crop: "An engineered crop consists of two distinct strains:
hooks and loops."
* The Onion, self-described as "America's Finest News
Source," parodies modern newspapers with a glossy imitation
of newspaper style that looks authentic . . . until you read
* What appears to be an official municipal site for the city
of Mankato, Minn., speaks of balmy winter temperatures due
to hot springs.
"This (the Mankato site) is one of
my favorites as I nearly froze to death when I lived there
for a year," wrote Linda Goff, library instruction librarian
at California State University, Sacramento.
Not all Internet misinformation is as harmless as the three
The Web is also host to unscientific pitches for useless or
harmful health products, pseudohistoric sites denying the
Holocaust and phony stock market tips. Of course, the very
same kinds of charlatans existed before computers.
Internet information is not inherently more risky than that
found in books, magazines or television, said Phil Agre, a
professor of communications at UCLA.
"Internet users are being disparaged as people who lack
critical capabilities and spread rumors," Agre said. That's
not true, he said.
However, the Internet does have some qualities that make
critical analysis of information a more critical skill for
No. 1 is the Internet's absence of editing.
"There are no filters that allow you to pick the wheat from
the chaff," said Goff. "There is no review process for the
Most every book, magazine or other resource in a library is
there because a publisher picked one author from among many
and a librarian selected one of many books published on a
By contrast, an authoritative-looking Web site can be the
product of a single individual, with no editing.
Robb Armstrong brought that idea into popular culture
recently when Joe, the main character of his comic strip
"Jumpstart," fell for a phony Web site.
"This is the official National-News.com site," Joe said.
"You can't get more authentic than this!" In the next panel,
the reader sees the Web site creator is a child. Educators
say real-life students fall just as hard as Joe for bad
When doing research on the Internet, "they don't distinguish
between a 12th-grader's report . . . and a zoologist who
really knows," said Linda Johnson, librarian at the new
Folsom High School.
One experience with a student brought this home to Johnson.
The student related that she had been in a chat room when
someone asked about the Amish.
"She said, "I told them I was Amish and they believed me!' "
Not a half-hour later, the same student was swearing that
some questionable information was true because she saw it on
the Internet, Johnson said. "When something gets in print,
our whole culture has us believe it is so."
Educators and librarians, for the most part, don't want to
censor Internet use, but they do want to make users more
Some educators have developed lessons to teach critical Web
use. Goff teaches a class called "Don't Get Caught in the
Other universities have online tutorials that teach
students to evaluate what they see online.
Johnson has a big sign posted in the library. It urges
students to look for bias and to ask themselves questions
about Web sites they use: Is the site's authority
verifiable? Can the facts be double-checked elsewhere? Is
the site the product of a reputable group or individual? "Do
they read that sign?" Johnson asked. "Not very often."
Some Web users choose to fight fire with fire.
Sacramento pediatrician Rick Gould said his patients refer
more and more to Web information and question him about it.
"Instead of coming in with an article, they're coming in
with a whole ream of stuff they printed out," he said.
Although some of that "stuff" is wrong, Gould doesn't blame
the Internet. "It's just going to be a tool. I don't think
it's good or bad, it's just there."
So he's trying to take advantage of it. His practice has its
own Web site -- www.kiddoc.com -- which links to information
sources he considers reliable. Patients are urged to sign on
and look for good information.
That's the same idea behind "The Skeptic's Dictionary," the
work of Robert T. Carroll, a philosophy professor at
Sacramento City College.
His Web-based dictionary has critical views of
misinformation that appears on the Web and in print --
including skeptical looks at alien abduction, creationism
and Holocaust denial.
The existence of wrong information on the Internet has even
spawned services that, for a fee, will protect individuals
and institutions by watching their e-backs for rumors and
The Web site for one service, eWatch, warns customers about
an information overload of 250,000 Internet messages a
eWatch says it will "tell you what consumers and
professionals are saying and reading about your services,
products, industry and competitors. You'll hear rumors
before they start to spread. You'll be among the first to
find out about negative or inaccurate information -- instead
of the last."
Agre cautioned against believing that Internet
misinformation is a big problem. The drawbacks are largely a
product of the medium's novelty, he said.
"With any new technology, the culture as a whole has to
learn to use it," Agre said. "There's just that learning
curve over time. . . . We have no alternative than to
believe in the common sense and decency of Internet