Copyright 1999 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
Sacramento Bee, June 14, 1999, METRO FINAL
LENGTH: 1368 words

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 State University.
Bad information, on the other hand, doesn't always announce itself. On the contrary, it may cloak itself in authority.
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 the stories.
* 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 parody sites.
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 information users.
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 Web."
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 subject.
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 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 information.
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!' " Johnson recounted.
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 sophisticated.
Some educators have developed lessons to teach critical Web use. Goff teaches a class called "Don't Get Caught in the Web."
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 -- -- 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 negative information.
The Web site for one service, eWatch, warns customers about an information overload of 250,000 Internet messages a day.
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 users."

Here are addresses for websites mentioned in the story:

CALIFORNIA'S VELCRO CROP UNDER CHALLENGE -- --Addresses a non-issue with analysis, a chart and recommendations.

HOME WEB PAGE OF ARTHUR R. BUTZ -- An engineering professor's revisionist take on Holocaust history.


TRUTH-SEEKING ON THE Net - CNET (an Internet News and Information Service) provides a guide to separating truth from lies.

MANKATO, MINN. HOME PAGE -- -- Compare this to the real city's page:

DON'T GET CAUGHT IN THE WEB -- /services/inst/indiv/caught97/index.htm -- A librarian's guide to evaluating web information.


KIDDOC -- -- The web page for Pediatric Medical Associates, a Sacramento practice.

THE ONION -- -- Funny, but not the news.

INFORMATION COMPETENCE --California State University tutorial on general information competence.

eWATCH -- -- One company's attempt to capitalize on people's fear of Web misinformation.

FACTS ABOUT GROWTH HORMONE -- -- Website promoting human growth hormone. It asks, "is it the fountain of youth?" and includes a "Special Promotional Offer."

EVALUATING WEB RESOURCES: LINKS -- - Links to 19 sources on evaluating information

SKEPTIC'S DICTIONARY -- -- An attempt to debunk a host of occult, pseudoscientific and false historical beliefs.

LOAD-DATE: June 15, 1999

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