Don't Believe The Internet

2012-09-06 09:32:21 by chort

This week the Internet was abuzz with "news" of AntiSec leaking a list of Apple UDIDs and attributing it to an FBI agent. Other hackers claimed to have hacked Mitt Romney's tax returns. Both stories delighted critics of Apple, the FBI, and Mitt Romney respectively and quickly spread like wildfire on social media. The problem is, it's unlikely either of them are true. Even worse, while pointing out the dangers of repeating unproven claims, I fell for one myself.

Early in the Apple-FBI news cycle I voiced my doubts. It was just too convenient of a story and too easy to believe. The facts didn't add up. The attackers claimed to have a lot of information, but released only a fraction of the attributes they claimed to have and a small number of records. There were supposed specifics (model of laptop, vulnerability that was exploited) that couldn't be proved, but made the story sound more factual by adding details. Later the alleged hackers released what they claimed was corroborating evidence that was quickly exposed as fake.

One of the keys to the viral success of this story is the small kernel of truth present: The leaked list does contain some genuine device information that was confirmed by device owners (many of whom sent their full UDID to a random Internet site, which is itself a problem). Once this small detail was confirmed, most people didn't look hard for additional proof and went with their gut feeling, which was to suspect that a massive, secretive corporation (Apple) was colluding with a US government agency to abuse their surveillance powers and violate citizens' privacy. I would easily believe it too, if it wasn't such a perfect example.

I expect the latest Mitt Romney story will turn out false as well, over time. Since the hackers gave a deadline for ransom, the story could easily play out quietly before the deadline expires. Few, if any, will remember to go back and check. This story is particularly unbelievable because it's been claimed so many times before. Even though this claim has obvious credibility problems, it still got a lot of air time.

Ironically, while all this was playing out and I was strenuously urging people to not believe stuff on the Internet, I committed the very same blunder by retweeting a post without checking the facts. The sad thing is, it would have only taken seconds to confirm the site as a parody. The person who's post I retweeted pointed out in her timeline it wasn't true. The website itself has a heading "The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record." I allowed myself to be uncritical of a story because I wanted it to be true, which violated advice I had posted two hours prior. The irony was not lost on people.

Fortunately for me, several people quickly pointed out my error. I count as a friend anyone who sets the record straight that diplomatically. Too often people let incorrect information slide, in some flawed form of "politeness." If something is true, it will stand up to challenges. If it doesn't survive critical analysis, it shouldn't be repeated.

As our societies become more and more connected, it's easier and easier to spread all types of information. Often this is a good thing (Arab Spring), but we tend to forget it can be a very bad thing as well. It's easy to spread panic, or harmful slander very quickly. It's everyone's responsibility to stop and question information before they re-share it. This post is just as much a reminder to myself as anyone else.

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