Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Dissemination Of Stupid Ideas

Aaro's in a grouchy mood after one morning spent on the internet. He's been let down by a Times sub who precised him thus: "The inventor of the internet is worried about the spread of conspiracy theories. A quick Google proved him right." Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the internet, though he did create the World Wide Web. There's a difference and its Googleable.

Yesterday Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the genius originators of the World Wide Web, announced the setting up of a new foundation, rather artlessly called the “World Wide Web Foundation”, which body intends to research what has been happening on the internet, and make suggestions on how to improve it. Which is a very good idea.


The only "exceptionally talented" originators of the WWW don't get asked to make speeches, of course. Only kidding, Sir Tim did it pretty much on his own, coding the original browser and server himself according to Wikipedia (link above) though I think I remember from his book, Weaving the Web that he had help with the first browser.

Anyway, in the lead-up to the foundation of the foundation Sir Tim mentioned his worries about one aspect of weblife, the fact that, using the net, “a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable - a sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging”.


Fair play, this is exactly what the BBC said Sir Tim said, because it's a cut-and-paste from the BBC interview (with a little adjustment to remove a "he said"). This idea hasn't gone down well - see The Register: Berners-Lee backs web truthiness labelling scheme and e-consultancy: Sir Tim Berners-Lee in crazy kitemark scheme. The second of those points out that "the web is a two-way medium", but no one knows that as much as TB-L who built the first web browser and editor. Aaro doesn't like Wikipedia, as we shall see, but the original idea of the Web allowed for much more interactivity (or vandalism).

The problem here is that the Web Foundation idea is bonkers: you don't need a central authority, and there is - and has been for just over 10 years now - a wonderful system for evaluating webpages: PageRank.

Back to this "sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging." I can imagine it, but I can invincible cyborgs with Austrian accents travelling back in time to kill the man who foiled the robot takeover of the world. TB-L doesn't give examples of damaging sorts of conspiracy theories. I imagine that regular reading of Harry's Place probably raises the blood pressure and leads to hallucinations of ubiquitous anti-Semites, but that's about it. The web has been blamed for the Bridgend suicides but that's as much as a conspiracy theory propagated by newspapers as much as anything; the phenomenon may not even have been real, as the Times article says, "a high rate of suicide among young males might be expected".

Our Dave, still in reasonable gear notes that the "great MMR scare was, largely, a print panic caused by ignorant journalists and media folk who were unable to distinguish between an unsubstantiated theory on the one hand and a scientific consensus built around significant studies on the other." But then, after some sensible observations on creationism, he decides to listen to Sir Tim. And here, I think, he loses it. He goes to the Wikipedia page on Paul Rassinier, which he finds to be "a little bit odd". Well, there is, before any text, a box with a large exclamation mark and the warning: "The neutrality and factual accuracy of this article are disputed." The Talk Page which is linked to immediately after that warning carries all Dave's objections and more. Dave:

So it took me an instinct, one morning, three hours, and a background in this material, to realise that the Rassinier Wikipedia biography - the first item on Rassinier that appears when you search for his name - had probably been written by someone with sympathies for the Holocaust denial camp of David Irving. The uninitiated, however, would never know, for not once does this poisonous bias break cover.


Wikipedia: Talk:Paul Rassinier Utterly, odiously POV. I assume that's a French editor trying to express his disgust in English, but it's clear enough. The "poisonous bias" is discussed at much length, and it's hard to miss.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/16/2008 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Should comments like that be posted anonymously?

9/16/2008 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Good point, Justin. I've removed it and I apologise to Marko. We don't do rumours here. We try to do facts and arguments.

9/16/2008 07:10:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

Aaro falls into a common trap. The problem is, if all web information has to be verified, then who will do the verification? Do you really trust the verifiers, because we could easily end up in a situation analogous to China, where all "unacceptable" views are filtered.

Of course, the ISPs and software manufacturers are also in favour of similar filtering, because they would try to make money out it.

The only sensible way to handle crap on the Internet as a user is to have an appropriate trust model. This is what education is meant to give you.

9/17/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

I dunno, I always find that viewpoint a little naive, George. Its like the American obsession with absolute free speech. Great in theory, in practice it has an unfortunate tendency to tilt things towards the wealthy and unprincipled.

Most people don't have an appropriate trust model, possibly because the average person isn't that bright, or maybe they don't have time. Fact is people do believe crazy shit that they read on the internet, and because the internet makes it easier to disseminate crazy shit, it tends to overwhelm the sane stuff.

Now you can argue that that's the fault of the individual user, but unfortunately its going to affect all of us to some degree. Particularly when the more unscrupulous propogandists are using this to their advantage.

9/18/2008 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

I get your point, cian, in fact I thought I was overstating my case as soon as I wrote it.

However:

... in practice it has an unfortunate tendency to tilt things towards the wealthy and unprincipled.

Hasn't it always been so? Before mass communication, people were bound by the limits of their ability to communicate. With the printed word, the wealthy and unprincipled still maintained an unhealthy control. Today is just the same, but different.

Fact is people do believe crazy shit that they read on the internet, and because the internet makes it easier to disseminate crazy shit, it tends to overwhelm the sane stuff.

And millions read the Sun and Hello. Or "respectable" papers like the Times and Observer, that are equally in thrall to the neo-liberals.

Ultimately, I still come back to this basic problem. If the Internet is to be controlled, then who does the controlling? Although I've no doubt that controls will be introduced in some form eventually. the question will be how this is done and who is in charge.

9/18/2008 12:56:00 PM  

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