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Can internet nutballs be neutralised?

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on” Mark Twain once said. And that was before the internet. Today, blatant falsehoods can circle the entire global numerous times at a speed even Twain would never have believed possible. What is worse, they continue to circle and recircle, even when truth, duly “booted” up, finally puts in an appearance.

How many readers out there also received a fevered email pointing out that typing the letters Q-3-3-N-Y and changing them into Wingdings font yielded an airplane followed by two vertical rectangular shapes (resembling the ill-fated Twin Towers), a skull and crossbones, and a Star of David? Q33NY was claimed to be the flight number of one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. If true, the images would have been indeed uncanny and not a little sinister. It is not true, of course. The flight numbers of the two planes were quite different.

Microsoft was kept busy for some time scotching rumours that it has been disseminating subtle anti-Semitic messages, or even being behind the 9/11 attacks. Ten years previously, the company had already felt it necessary to deny that its Wingdings font contained anti-Jewish motifs. Even so, suspicions remain. Apart from the annoying Q33NY scam continuing to do the rounds, I had prior to this received a worried call from a Jewish lady about whether there was any dark significance in the fact that the capitalised letters ‘NY’ yielded a skull and crossbones and a Magen David. It’s just unfortunate, I suppose, that ‘NY’ stands for New York, which remains the single largest world Jewish population centre.

Numerous other patently false theories were spawned by the 9/11 atrocity. One was that Sura Nine, Verse Eleven of the Qu’ran read: “For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome Eagle. The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah and lo, while some of the people trembled in despair still more rejoiced; for the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah; and there was peace”. The Eagle in this context supposedly referred to the United States and the verse as a whole to the latter’s taking vengeance on the Arabs for 9/11. In fact, the word ‘eagle’ appears no-where in the Qu’ran and Verse 9/11 is no more than a call to repentance.

There are, fortunately, counter-hoax websites (such as www.breakthechain.org and the ever-helpful Wikipedia) that help discredit this sort of thing. I’m ashamed to admit that I only got wise to the Q33NY scam after my wife advised me to check its provenance through a simple Google search, but I did find out the truth re the Qu’ran verse on my own and had the satisfaction, such as it was, of putting others right about it.

Also incorrect, by the way, are many of the claims regarding alleged permutations of the number eleven when related to key aspects of the 9/11 attacks. For example, it was stated that the total number of victims inside all the hijacked planes was 254 and 2+5+4 =11, when the true number of was 265. (Well, okay, if you add 254 to 11 you do get 265, but really …)

All this shows how mixed a blessing the internet can be. Surely one of the most astounding tools ever devised by the human race, the fact that it can also be used by cranks and hoaxers to spread lies and disinformation has, in part, offset its usefulness. Internet technology has both revolutionised and democratised the dissemination of information. Long gone are the days when knowledge was the preserve of the wealthy ruling elite or the church while the vast majority of humanity was kept in ignorance. On the other hand, the democratisation of information dissemination, combined with the relative inexpensiveness of distributing it worldwide, has fatally undermined the kind of quality control that once prevailed. Poorly researched and expressed ideas that would never have seen the light of day had they been submitted to the critical scrutiny of responsible publishers now jostle for attention alongside genuinely useful treatises that are making the lives of writers and researchers so much easier. (As an example of the latter, my attention was drawn by a contributor to a previous article of mine to the following link providing an enlightening – if not particularly partisan – year by year summary of the Border War: www.geocities.com/odjobman/raid1.htm).

Disinformation is one thing; racial hatred is another. Some websites (such as jewwatch.com) are so virulently anti-Semitic that Jewish civil rights groups have called on Google to remove them from its site index. Others, however, have recognised the futility of such an approach, acknowledging that the proliferation anti-Semitic websites is part of the nature of an internet world and is a reality that has to be adapted to through education and sensitisation.

What may help here is the fact that the proliferation of information has become such an overwhelming torrent that a numbing effect has set in. Whereas a fiery pamphlet might have been able to stir people up to passionate debate and even violence in the past, yet another web posting is unlikely to have the same impact, no matter how provocative. Moreover, the internet is self-correcting in that it allows for offensive, untrue and off-the-wall allegations to be refuted via the same medium.

Getting back to 9/11, it was the television station of Hezbollah, Al-Manar, that launched the libel that 4 000 Israelis (which became Jews in subsequent permutations of the theory) had not reported for work the day of the attack and that the atrocity was therefore all a Jewish plot against Islam. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this continues to be widely believed, despite regular and thorough debunkings. The real problem at the end of the day is not the internet itself but the predilections, agendas and malign ideologies of some of those who use it.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.

17 Comments

  1. Madoda Madoda 11 September 2008

    David,

    Mark Twain’s obsevations are very true today. The American presidential campaign is a clear case in point. Lies, distortion are peddled viral in the internet and gain currency long before they are disproved to misinform unsuspecting voters to fear other candidates. The burden of proof is shifted to the victims that the rumours are not true. They are a sever distraction to the victim because if left un challenged they become fact the more they are repeated.

    This Q33NY lie is very sad. I think the only hope is that most of the people with access to internet is South Africa are less guillable to consume such lies without skepticism.

  2. Kit Kit 11 September 2008

    Talking of a pretty amazing use of the internet, people might like to have a look at United Airlines (UAUA on the NYSE). See what happened to it last week and why. Most amazing shares scam (but yet surely not illegal!) I’ve ever heard of…
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/10/ua_bankruptcy_farce/

    It’s amazing that some people think so much in cyberspace (as opposed to the real world) that that plan even occurred to them…

    As for if the nutters will ever be neutralised? Not a chance. Or put it this way: not a chance if we want to keep our own freedom of expression and our own privacy and our own relatively unimpeded communications. There is too much money and too much entertainment in being a freak.

    There aren’t two sides to the internet, only one: humanity. Every great invention has its down sides, because we as human beings are flawed and many of us are immoral. That’s all.

  3. Hard Rain Hard Rain 11 September 2008

    Not that a Qu’ranic verse would need to be faked to expose the commands rendered unto all Muslims from Allah through the Prophet that violence through jihad is welcome and required in Islam.

    How about a nice quote from the Hadith. This one is definitely not about repentance!

    “Allah’s Apostle said, “The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.” ” – Bukhari (52:177)

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 September 2008

    This has really been worrying me for some time. Google could have a complaints department to investigate and remove – but the price would be prohibative, and the whole point of the net is cheap communication.

    However, I do not see why EVERY country in the world could not have a special police division checking into misinformation on the net – a kind of Interpol.They already co-operate for internet porn, why not for mis-information as well?

  5. Kit Kit 12 September 2008

    Google often fix their search rankings, etc. when they find this kind of stuff. This is not Google’s problem. They’re merely a search engine. The stuff is out there whether or not it appears on their rankings. Spam is a good example of that – it doesn’t require any interference by Google.

    So you can refer genuine complaints of this nature on to their complaints department (they do have one).

    I have absolutely no problem with internet information. There is little difference between a story broadcast on the BBC World Service and the BBC’s website. There is little difference between a report that I can read in a magazine like Nature and the same report on Nature’s website.

    If you’re going in with a view that everything you read online is meant to be ‘true’, that’s just silly. I get flyers in my mailbox all the time directing me to some quack doctor down the road who can cure my relationship problems, increase the size of various body parts and find my soul mate. I don’t believe it because it’s in paper form.

    I’ve also read pointless propaganda in books and newspapers (just because something was approved by a publisher as ‘saleable’ doesn’t mean it’s true). So yeah, healthy dose of cynicism will save you from all scams and propaganda pieces except the cleverest.

    I really think there are people who need to stop thinking about just dissing the internet and start thinking about how much poorer and less free we’d be if we didn’t have it.

    As for someone checking up on what everyone does on the net? Sure, if you’re happy for people to monitor your phone calls 24/7, read your mail before you do and censor the press in case there’s some ‘misinformation’ that probably only stupid people will pay attention to anyway.

    I would rather enforcement was applied to cases of internet fraud and botnet herders than complaints about what in some countries in the world might be protected free speech anyway.

  6. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 September 2008

    Alisdair

    Actually Judge Nicholson has just said tha Zuma IS the victim of a political conspiratory.

    Kit

    There really is some very evil dis-information on the net which people do believe. I still think my “interpol” suggestion is valid.

  7. Odette Odette 12 September 2008

    David

    Also try http://www.snopes.com – a great site for debunking urban myths.

    A few years ago I resolved to check every warning/alarmist email I received. Since then, out of all the emails I’ve received warning me about conspiracies, crime alerts, food scares, missing children, etc. the number I’ve found to be true = one.

    Most people do not read critically. If it’s written down it must be true (seems to be their philosophy). It doesn’t take much to do a little research but I suppose for many people it’s easier to accept whatever is spoon fed to them (and if it appeals to their existing beliefs and prejudices – all the better).

  8. mallencolly mallencolly 12 September 2008

    @lyndall

    Because “misinformation” sometimes means the truth that you do not want people to hear or someone elses opinion. Do we really need the police to protect us from a tall story?

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 September 2008

    Mallencolly

    I am thinking of a body a little more sophisticated than the police. And there is a lot of money and vested interests behind misinformation – like there is behind child porn. If we can “police” one why not the other?

    If it is not FACTUALLY accurate – delete it. Obviously opinions are opinions, and should not be censored.

  10. jaycee jaycee 13 September 2008

    There are obviously certain topics that should be censored, like child pornography, that can be universally accepted as deranged. But I think users of the internet should teach themselves to become wise and with the support of service providers who can put a label on a website to indicate its contents, users should still have the freedom to choose what to read. Any society has its fair share of wacko’s and informed internet users must learn to avoid crappy websites as far as possible. Just do not start with Big Brother Must Watch You rubbish! The responsibility must rest with the internet user and not whoever put stuff on the ‘net.

  11. Kit Kit 13 September 2008

    I can’t remember who sat on which side in Trapido’s free speech debates but I think we can assume that Lyndall was in the ‘shut everybody up’ camp.

    One example: Gukurahundi – fact or fiction? Who decides?

    Let’s all dance and welcome our overlords of the ‘this is how you applaud the athletes’ variety. Sorry, I just can’t.

    Like Jaycee says, there are things which are universally abhorrent like snuff movies and child pornography. They’re crimes in pretty much every state in the world and international police forces have focus on them.

    To suggest that ‘disinformation’, with its amazingly loose definitions, should be the focus of any kind of mass international attack like that? Best you go and live in the UK now, you’d probably enjoy their style of surveillance. They can follow your three year old child because they suspect you might have ‘misinformed’ the school about his address. They can keep trivial details of your life on a database to ‘protect you’ (read: from yourself; spy). I’m vehemently against this kind of interference and treating adult human beings as if they were slow four year olds.

    One final thing though: you’ve generally got to be pretty smart to be a Fabian. Everyone else is on the other side: minion.

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 September 2008

    Jaycee

    We have free speech in our constitution EXCEPT for hate speech, incitment to war and some other categories. Why can’t the same principles apply to the net? AND remember unsophisticated children use the net!

  13. Kit Kit 15 September 2008

    David and Lyndall might be interested in this one:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7613201.stm

    I don’t find the two examples he is using remotely sensible anyway. The CERN collider and MMR vaccine? Whatever. Hate speech is one thing, unpopular viewpoints on scientific research another.

    Although the bonus I can think of with the kind of rubbish he’s suggesting (isn’t it amazing how even most forward-thinking out-of-the-box people get conservative and know-it-all when they age?) is that Mbeki’s AIDS-denialist buddies would never have got a foothold. So on second thoughts….hmm….

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 September 2008

    Kit

    They seem to be talking about it – but not DOING anything!

  15. Kit Kit 17 September 2008

    Talking about but not doing? Exactly as it should be.

    Some things require action, like chasing down and arresting a rapist. Other things just require people to talk about them and then go away and leave the rest of us alone.

    Curtailing freedom of expression because some people can’t use their brains – don’t do.

    There’s hate speech, fraud and disinformation, there is a difference I guess. Clear hate speech crosses criminal lines in many countries. Fraud crosses lines in almost all countries. Talking unpopular crap on the internet crosses lines in a few countries. I do not wish to live in a village in China, I am lucky that I don’t have to and I wouldn’t choose to.

    Take the MMR and CERN examples he refers to – in using those, he’s very clearly pointing towards a society where he and his ilk (the ‘intellectuals’) make decisions on what everyone else (the ‘workers’) can read, write, think and say. I’ve told you before, you would be on the wrong side of that.

    If the ordinary people were not allowed to post views we would be missing just about everything that’s of vital interest in protecting our human rights. It’s easy for the partisan intellectual to ‘prove’ that something is for our own good (dubious ‘vaccine’, spying, enormous DNA database, repository of personal medical records, checking out your personal emails, telephone calls, unsafe medicines, food safety concerns, whatever). Industry and government would find it enormously easy in such an environment to collude and demand that questioning of their motive/product is removed as ‘unproven’ or ‘disinformation’.

    The point of me posting the link was just to show you that there were some supporters of the nutter idea somewhere, not to display my support for the nutter idea.

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 18 September 2008

    Kit

    What concerns me is not opinions, provided they are shown as opinions. You should know me well enough by now to know that what concerns me is historical facts being misrepresented by vested interests with vast amounts of money and loading the internet with malice and spite, for propaganda towards political or fundamentalist religious ends.

    I believe there should be a forum to which it can be appealed. For instance in Europe in the Middle Ages -Jews ate the blood of Christian babies was one of those kind of stories to justify pograms and the church seizing their assets.

    If any historical fact can be proved wrong – it should be deleated.

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