investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Truth, lies and getting grilled on the internet

In Previously published on April 18, 2013 at 11:59 am

The trustworthiness of information on the internet is challenged in many ways. A few are outlined in this piece, which was  first published in The Age. Click here to view the original piece.

DANNY KATZ wrote a corker of a story last week about his personal experience of plagiarism on the internet.

It started in 1998 when Katz wrote a very funny column for The Age about the etiquette and male bonding behaviour he’d observed at Australian barbecues. It was called ‘‘Master of the Tongs’’ — “Tongmaster” for short.

In last week’s piece Katz recounted how his column for more than 10 years has been shared around the internet by email and purloined by bloggers — including a South African called Adi Badenhorst, who claimed to have written it. At least, someone on the website of Badenhorst’s family’s wine business in Swartland, Western Cape, claimed on his behalf he had written it. The names were changed to give it a South African flavour — and the word ‘‘barbecue’’ was changed to ‘‘braai’’, its South African equivalent — but in all other respects it was the same article.

Katz’s column was also turned into a comedy sketch and a couple of videos based on it were posted on YouTube. One of them had won an award at a short film festival.

Under one of the YouTube videos Katz Junior commented ‘‘My dad wrote this!’’ A little later someone — possibly a young Badenhorst — responded: ‘‘No, MY dad wrote this!’’

The second kid probably did believe his father had written the Tongmaster piece — why wouldn’t he if his dad said he had — and short of putting a cutting from October 9, 1998, fromThe Age in front of the kid’s face, you probably wouldn’t convince him otherwise. Unless you have complete faith in the institution offering the information, digital ‘‘truth’’ can only be comprehensively trumped by hard-copy evidence.

Katz was remarkably even-tempered in the face of the whole depressing business but did  lament that ‘‘anything published online belongs to everyone and my story belonged to the world now, it wasn’t mine any more’’.

This is the paradox of the internet. Never has so much information been available to so many people; but never has so much information been so dodgy. Plagiarised articles, inaccurate information, poorly researched writing, fiction presented as fact, conspiracy theories passing as history … it’s all there.

In the old days — say, a decade ago — people could take for granted that material published in a book, newspaper or magazine had gone through a process to check it for accuracy. That’s why the printed word was held in such high esteem. True, plagiarism was harder to uncover then and although we heard of the occasional case in newspapers and magazines it was probably more rife than we realised. But, overall, hard-copy content was reliable; only self-published books, brochures and magazines produced by the egocentric or amateur ‘‘experts’’ were greeted with instant suspicion by those doing serious research.

With the democratisation of media and the ubiquity of tools to publish information on the internet, those who are less than scrupulous about the information they publish — whether merely careless or deliberate plagiarists — far outweigh the guardians of accurate information. That’s not to say newspapers are perfect and bloggers are unreliable or thieves of other people’s work. But the general point applies: it’s a worry.

The problem is made worse when this unreliability of information on the internet seeps upwards, into the mainstream.

A couple of months ago my wife edited a manuscript for a kids’ book about dinosaurs. Checking the book’s research she found some worrying practices.

For some of the book’s dinosaur facts, the author had relied on a website set up by an educational software developer and his 10-year-old son, who was credited with some of the content on the site. The kid might be a dinosaur whiz — he might want to be a palaeontologist when he grows up and know everything there is to know about brachiosaurs and diplodocuses — but he’s 10, and a book published by a reputable publisher should not use him as a source.

The dinosaur book author had also taken information from Buzzle.com, a website that publishes thousands of purpose-written mini articles on dozens of subjects; a kind of Wikipedia wannabe without the legions of readers to nip and tuck and correct the content.

The dinosaur piece on Buzzle was written by a physics students who has researched and written hundreds of articles for the website. Marvel at the astonishing range of his expertise in this small selection of his articles from the site:

Brain Hemorrhage Recovery
How to Flirt with a Girl Over Text
The Saddest Songs of all Time
Fun Facts about Potassium
Things to do in NYC
Hispanic Internet Marketing
Overactive Thyroid in Women
Bloated Stomach

This fellow might be a researching savant who can instantly get his head around diverse, complex subjects and write about them accurately and authoritatively between astronomy and nanoscience lectures. Or he might operate like the writers for some of those journalism farms that pay piffling amounts for ‘‘articles’’ cobbled together in record time after a cursory look at a couple of websites. Either way, no one should rely on his information about dinosaurs, let alone Hispanic internet marketing or bloated stomachs. A publisher of books for children certainly should not.

The upside is that a lot of these problems have a shelf life. Plagiarism, poor research and the sharing of material without giving due credit can easily happen during this ‘‘lawless’’ Wild West era of the internet, in which we’re all so excited — and often careless — when using our expanded freedom of communication.

But that’s changing. Lawyers increasingly specialise in digital intellectual property, tracing the misuse of material online for clients and suing for damages when appropriate.

‘‘Share’’ buttons on websites make it easier to distribute content that retains a link to the original author and website, making plagiarism and the anonymising of content more difficult than when cut-and-paste was how we spread material we liked.

Schoolkids are taught that Wikipedia can be a starting point for research, but real research requires a broad range of sources that should be double, triple and (in the internet age) quadruple checked. The ability to judge the reliability of sources is more important than ever.

Search engines make it easier to comb through years of content to see whether your work has been nicked, who nicked and whether they made anything out of it.

Adi Badenhorst probably never guessed 10 years ago when he claimed Danny Katz’s article as his own that the internet, which enabled his misdemeanour, would come back to bite him on bum. The post of Katz’s article was removed from Mr Badenhorst’s site in the past week, but his original posting has been cached by Google and is easily found.

There’s a lesson in that.

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