Weeding out the lies

Web site dedicated to debunking urban legends and Internet rumors

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The number of legitimate informational resources available on the Internet is staggering.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of pages of Colorado's historic newspapers are being digitally copied and will soon be available on the Web. The federal government posts verbatim transcripts of discussions on the Senate floor. In Northwest Colorado, city and county governments are coming together to bring more information and content to their Web sites through the Open eGov Project. People who lost the user's manual for their camera or their remote control can most likely find a digital reprint online.

Whether Internet surfers go looking for information about tourism, employment, their favorite bands, or anything else, they're likely to come across material posted by less-than-reputable sources.

Urban legends abound on the World Wide Web.

Even before the Internet, people wondered about supposed strange coincidences between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. People had heard that Coca Cola can dissolve a tooth overnight. People wonder: "Do I really swallow eight spiders a year in my sleep?" as some e-mails purport.

Since the advent of the Internet, people everywhere have been exposed to a growing body of misinformation online. Much of the gossip arrives via e-mail, along with shocking photos and outright scams.

Some users are seduced into believing the things they read on the Web and others are enticed to participate by forwarding the material to friends, family members and others in their address books.

One Web site is dedicated to uncovering the truth about urban legends, scams and falsehoods on the Web. At www.snopes.com, users can read that Coke contains far too little phosphoric acid to dissolve a tooth overnight, or even over the weekend.

The Lincoln-Kennedy connection is not as compelling, once exposed to the logical insight at snopes.com.

The spider "statistic" was inadvertently revived by a columnist who was actually trying to show people how quickly bad information can spread via the e-mail, according to snopes.com.

The site is owned and operated by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson who live in southern California.

The site started as a hobby and grew into a full-time job, Barbara Mikkelson said.

Mikkelson spends her time debunking myths and legends on the Internet. She also confirms the veracity of numerous other tales. In contrast to unsigned e-mails or dubious Web pages, snopes.com cites its sources.

On Friday, following a three-day vacation, Barbara Mikkelson was wading through the 775 e-mails that had piled up during her absence.

"That's after I whacked the spam and all the routine queries," Mikkelson said in a telephone interview. "I've been online for the last four hours."

The ever-growing body of research is organized into more than 40 categories that include topics such as "Cokelore," which focuses on urban legends related to the soft drink, and "Inboxer Rebellion," which investigates hoaxes and falsehoods that reach people through e-mail.

"Computers are not only now an integral part of our daily lives, they've also become the primary means by which urban legends and other pieces of misinformation are now spread," the Web site states.

The world's rumor mill is being turned, in part, by Web users who help propagate the information through e-mail.

New users approach the Internet "wide-eyed and gormless," Mikkelson said. They're more apt to believe what they read and forward much of the junk mail they receive. More experienced users learn to apply some etiquette to their digital lives and let the dubious reports die in their "Deleted" boxes.

But "new people are coming online all the time," Mikkelson said, "and that learning experience will have to be gotten through by each of them."

Dan Dunning is the service manager at Jackson's Office Supply & Radio Shack in Craig.

When he first came online more than 15 years ago, he was like the new users Mikkelson described. He forwarded messages to a circle of friends until the messages eventually came back around. He participated in chat rooms and was astonished that he could actually talk to someone on the other side of the world.

"You did it just so you could," Dunning said, "just to test the information highway."

These days, Dunning uses the Web mostly for his job. He corresponds with techs across the country. He visits Web sites like www.symantec.com to find out about the latest computer viruses that are hitting his customers.

Dunning bookmarked a Web site that offers frequently-updated weather reports.

Dunning uses sites he can trust, such as the "Knowledge Base" at Microsoft's Web site.

The Internet is a tool he uses to find specific information.

"The 'information highway' meant something totally different when I was a kid," Dunning said.

Although he's still amused by the occasional anecdote that arrives in his Inbox, Dunning's priorities have changed.

He used the Internet to find tools he could use to block the things he hates about the Web, such as spam and popup ads. Rarely do annoying e-mails get through the protective software. When the messages do arrive, they're destined for the trash.

"I don't forward jokes unless it's like a knock-me-on-the-floor joke," Dunning said. "Pornography, graffiti, all that stuff gets trashed."

Samantha Bouwens said she went through the same learning process. Bouwens is a sales associate at Payless Shoesource in Craig.

Bouwens was enamored by the Internet in junior high and high school. She and her friends liked to circulate messages to each other.

"I was more involved in forwarding at that time," Bouwens said. "At that time, it was the thing to do."

She still enjoys participating in the occasional personality quiz.

"Those are kinda fun," Bouwens said.

But celebrity gossip, prescription drug advertisements and other junk e-mail doesn't last long in her Inbox.

E-mail still serves its purpose in her life.

"It's really nice for when you Internet shop," Bouwens said. "That's where you get your receipt."

Experienced users have become more savvy in their Internet travels. But the influx of well-meaning newbies, along with people who have evil intentions, means that misinformation will persist on the Web.

Mikkelson doesn't approve of the people who generate the material or those who pass it on. Information intended to scare or shock people is particularly offensive.

"What does that do but contribute to the growing environment of fear?" Mikkelson said.

Aside from general misinformation that spreads fearful messages, other hearsay causes damage to a specific, named target. The lies are often aimed at businesses, people and products, Mikkelson said.

"People think of rumors as being harmless, innocuous, fun and entertaining until it applies to them," Mikkelson said.

Although it has grown and increased in popularity, the Web itself has lost credibility, Mikkelson said.

Part of the reason is because the Web, at the outset, was saddled with unrealistic expectations.

"When the Internet was new, a big chunk of the users had this crazy idea that it was an all-knowing supercomputer," Mikkelson said. "People thought it was the repository of all knowledge. Now people know there's lots of garbage on the Internet."

Many people thought the Internet was a "monolithic source of solid information," Mikkelson said.

"I mean it's computers, right?" Mikkelson jests.

What people have grasped is that computers are controlled by people. And human nature thrives in the digital world as well as anywhere else.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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