"I want to believe"

15 September 2008

Tim Berners-Lee would like to give some websites the stamp of trustworthiness to help stamp out the incredible amount of bunk on the Intertubes, he said in an interview with the BBC's Pallab Ghosh:

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Naturally, in the world of blogs, Berners-Lee's idea is an affront to free speech. It does not take long for people to get the idea that Big Government is going to stomp on the little website owner who might simply be expressing an unusual idea. However, what he is looking for are just rating systems:

"I'm not a fan of giving a website a simple number like an IQ rating because like people they can vary in all kinds of different ways," he said. "So I'd be interested in different organisations labelling websites in different ways".

This all sounds very sensible. Some of the systems might work, depending on what they are rating. But, it does not take long before you start coming up with ways to game the system. And, in reality, disinformation is not really the core problem. Some people just like believing in bollocks.

Take an email sent to one of the journalist mailing lists this morning, claiming that the London 2012 Olympic committee banned the Red Arrows from performing at the games four years from now. They posted a link to the Number 10 petition page protesting at this calumny.

For some reason, the poster felt strongly enough about the 'ban' to send the email. But they, apparently, didn't feel so strongly that they actually put their name to the petition to reinstate the Red Arrows. If they did, they would have been confronted with a message, posted almost a year ago, claiming that the original story was false, that there is no such ban on their aerial acrobatics at the 2012 Olympics but you could go ahead and register your displeasure at the idea of a ban anyway. OK, you don't have to believe that statement but it does not take more than a few more clicks to reach the conclusion that there never was a ban.

Why go to the trouble of putting together the email without even a cursory check? For one thing, it was a chain email with barely a letter changed. So it wasn't a lot of work. But, at the heart of a lot of these chain-letter hoaxes is a desire to believe. People don't bother checking because the idea behind the hoax affirms their world view. In the case of the Red Arrows 'ban', you could almost hear them muttering "political correctness gone mad" between gritted teeth. Anything that hits that button gets forwarded immediately because, when you check stuff out, you run the risk of finding out something that goes against your beliefs.

Andy Schlafly's Conservapedia, while an immense source of horror and amusement in equal measure to me, I'm sure is a comfort blanket to a bunch of other people, not least Schlafly himself.

From my point of view, any sane rating system has to declare Conservapedia at best satire. But all that would do is give its faithful adherents another reason to fear and hate what they see as the liberal media hegemony.

Unfortunately, as Charles Mackay's fantastic book "The Madness of Crowds" testifies, people have been prepared to believe all manner of batshit-crazy ideas for years. The Internet simply gives them a lot more to choose from. No rating system is going to fix that.

On the other hand, almost making Berners-Lee's point was a splog that uses paraphrasing software to hide the fact that it rips off its entire content from other places.

Here's how the Web's creator's words turned out after spell in the blender (I'm not linking to it, by the way, you'll have to trust me):

On the scheme intellection sects crapper distribute rattling apace and dead a faith which was 12 grouping who hit whatever unfathomable individualized problems dead encounter a instruction which is rattling credible. A difference of band theory of sorts and you crapper envisage the transmission of thousands of grouping and be earnestly detrimental, “the BBC quoted as saying.