My 11/09/08 Missoulian column
There’s an old saying that goes “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I think that’s accurate a good deal of the time, more so during the every-four-years political season and probably every hunting season, too. But these days, it’s good to realize that satirical Web sites that appear to be “real” news and e-mails about giant bears and elk won’t let truth get in the way of a good story, either.
Back before the Internet (yes, I’m that old), we learned our own methods of critical reading, maybe from laughing at the photographs of aliens on the front ages of the “newspapers” in the checkout line of the grocery store. And well, things ran at a slower speed, too; books, magazines and newspaper didn’t move around at the speed of light.
Now, there must be something about the immediacy of the Web and email that contributes to tall tales of a “real” news story. Or perhaps it’s just easier to get that story about the giant trophy elk to thousands more people. Some of those emails and sites are known to link to malware, but mostly they limit themselves to stretching the truth and clogging email inboxes.
One of the best examples of a humor Web site that sometimes is taken as fact is the Onion. In the most recent issue, one headline reads “Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are,” while another is “Bush: Can I Stop being President Now?
Now, good humor usually has an element of truth to it, and sometimes it takes a grasp of cultural knowledge and close reading to know the difference between something completely out of whack and something just a little out of level. But in my experience – especially with students who are quick to claim being worldly – people are not all that quick to pick up on the fact that it is just satire.
To complicate matters for some, the Onion, which bills itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” has links on their site to the headlines of “news partners” CNN and the Washington Post. Those are just ads that link news stories. Anyone can set up Web site links to legitimate newspapers and call them “partners.” And the Onion’s contact page lists editorial offices all over the country and dozens of writers and editors, just like any other major paper. But if you look hard enough, buried in a section about editorial matters is the admission that the “Onion is a satirical weekly publication….”
But sometimes the humor isn’t always obvious and the Onion is taken as fact. According to the San Francisco Chronicle (and probably a result of the language gap), “Readers of the Beijing Evening News, the capital’s largest-circulation newspaper, learned this week that the U.S. Congress had threatened to move out of Washington unless a fancy new Capitol was built.”
How do you try to check the veracity of a Web site? Look for contact information, such as a “Contact” or “About” page and read it, and dig around and analyze what you find or can’t find. Look at the URL, too. If the site is obviously a free or cheap-hosting company (not always obvious), then it will be listed as thissite.wordpress.com or thissite.blogspot.com, and that may give you pause.
If you’re a bit geeky, you can check the free services, which provide the public domain information about Internet domain ownership. Go to a domain name lookup site such as dnsstuff.com or Internic.net and enter the domain to see what contact and registration information is available. Beware that many sites have begun to use private registration services, and so you might come up empty.
But mostly practice good judgment, which is always a good thing on the Internet, because with satire, scams and malware, it’s still the Wild West out there.
Now, what about those emails circulating with images and stories of the enormous grizzly or the huge shark leaping from the water to snatch a man dangling from a helicopter? Be skeptical and be ready to hunt around for scraps of the truth.
Check the image itself. Look for the same angle of light in all parts of the photo. If the sunlight is casting shadows from both the west and the east, something is not quite right in the photo. But lots of “Photoshopped” images are nearly impossible to discount without using sophisticated forensic analysis.
There is a good Web site – snopes.com – for checking the fact value of that e-mailed tall tale. Snopes covers the complicated stories behind hundreds of “urban legends” from wildlife, politics, movies, religion and even some concerning Coca-Cola and Hurricane Katrina.
David and Barbara Mikkelson – the people behind Snopes.com – have an extensive “Site Info” section that describes their work and their background. A piece about Snopes.com and the Mikkelsons is at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Online Journalism Review. And there’s a piece at CNN, too.
One can spend hours on Snopes reading about the elements of the truth that are sometimes mixed in with the tall tales, and there is a forum for up-to-the-minute investigations. You can read about one of the more famous tall tales – “Hunting for Bambi” – which was actually investigated by a TV station in Las Vegas that didn’t do the most basic research to know it was a hoax. Even after the real story broke, the TV station continued to defend its work.
That photo and story of the huge elk shot in the Selway Bitterroot by an archer? Partly true. The elk was real and the 79-inch outside spread was real, too. But the elk was raised and hunted on a game farm in Quebec. Snopes has news links with good evidence.
How about the photo of the three golfers running from the green after a grizzly appears from the trees? It’s real, and shot on a golf course in Big Sky. It was confirmed by the original photographer.
And the famous “fire elk” photo – two elk standing in a river with a wall of flame behind them – that everyone seemed to have as a computer screen background a few years back? It circulated widely with different stories attached to it, but the facts are it was shot by a BLM firefighter on government time in the Bitterroot near Sula and can’t be sold.
But what’s interesting about the “truth” behind the fire elk photo is that Snopes calls the elk in the photo “deer.” That might not be enough of a detail to concern some, but I think for most people in Montana, Snopes has it wrong.
Beware: Security Fix writes that “Cyber criminals are blasting out massive amounts of spam touting a video of President-elect Barack Obama’s victory speech. Recipients who click the included link are taken to a site that prompts visitors to install an Adobe Flash Player update. The bogus update, however, is actually a data-stealing Trojan horse.”