This week’s CBC Web column…
Did you hear about the 42 members of the Cambodian Midget Fighting League mauled in a match against an African lion?
How about the mummified fairy discovered in Derbyshire?
Or, closer to home, did you know the world’s last surviving scientist specializing in the study of dragons lives in a nursing home in Moose Jaw?
The Internet as put an amazing amount of information at our fingertips. There’s a lot of very accurate, very useful information out there. And then there’s the stuff that…isn’t.
Sometimes false information is presented deliberately, as a hoax. Sometimes it’s put online as a joke, and people take it more seriously than its initiators intended. Sometimes it’s put online in good faith by people who just don’t know any better. And every once in a while, this bad information finds its way to a major media outlet. Once that happens, it’s almost impossible to eradicate or correct.
There are, fortunately, sites devoted entirely to determining the truth of some of the strange information that makes the rounds. I rely heavily on Snopes.com. The next time you get one of those bizarre emails telling you about, say, a mummified fairy discovered in Derbyshire, go to Snopes first before you pass it along to everyone else. There’ll you’ll see the picture that’s making the rounds…and read about how it was all an April Fool’s joke that somehow failed to die.
Not all misinformation on the Web is as patently silly as mummified fairies, though.
A classic Internet hoax is the Christmas Lights Hoax, which hit the Web in December of 2004. Radio stations from Denver to Australia reported that a particularly Web site, www.komar.org, would let visitors control the owner’s home Christmas lights. After the story was on the radio, it was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed all around the world. It appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times linked to it; so did the heavy-traffic site Slashdot.
But it wasn’t real. The creator, Alex Komarnitsky, had 4.3 million hits on his site, spoke to media from all over the world, and convinced pretty much everyone that they really were controlling his lights. Then he revealed the truth to the Wall Street Journal. In fact, he had 32 high-resolution photographs, taken in four sets with different amounts of snow on the ground, and a sophisticated computer program served up an appropriate image on demand.
You can read all about it at Komarnitsky’s site. (Beginning in 2005, by the way, he managed to set up his house so that you really could control the lights over the Internet.)
Sometimes, false information gets passed around just because people want it to be true. In 2004, at a computer conference in San Francisco, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy showed a copy of what he said was a photograph from Popular Mechanics depicting the magazine’s vision of a home computer: a huge, wall-sized unit with wheels and other unlikely control devices. I got pointed to this photograph myself. Trouble is, it was actually a doctored picture of a nuclear submarine control room mock-up once displayed at the Smithsonian.
Another example: there’s an apparently ineradicable belief that President George W. Bush was photographed holding a fake (often called a plastic) turkey during a surprise visit to the troops in Baghdad for Thanksgiving, 2003. The New York Times actually issued a correction in July, 2004, to an article that made that claim, and said unequivocally, “It was real, not fake.”
Australian columnist Tim Blair has made rather a hobby of tracking mentions of the fictitious fake, which continues to crop up to this day and is almost always used as a slam against Bush. There’s a similarly ineradicable belief that Al Gore once claimed credit for “inventing the Internet.” He didn’t.
And then there’s the false information that spreads across the Web without anyone really intending to spread false information–which is where the lion-wrestling midgets and the professor of draconology wasting away in Moose Jaw come in.
If you visit a certain site, you’ll see what appears very much to be an original BBC article headlined “Lions Mutilate 42 Midgets in Cambodian Ring-Fight.” It looks and reads exactly like you would expect a BBC article about such a bizarre event to read.
Trouble is, it’s entirely fake. The BBC template was simply borrowed to make the story look legitimate–and the story was never intended to deceive anyone beyond one particular person. Its creator explains on a disclaimer page that “It was created to ‘settle’ a dispute between a friend of mine in which he claimed that 40 weaponless midgets could defeat 1 lion in a hypothetical fight.” It worked to fool that friend, but although the link wasn’t intended to spread outside the initial group of friends involved in the article, it did. Once it reached sites like collegehumor.com and fark.com, there was no holding it back. And interestingly enough, when I was told about it, the person thought that the BBC page was real and that the BBC had been taken in by a hoax. In fact, the BBC had nothing to do with it.
Finally, there’s the professor of draconology in Moose Jaw. If you Google “Volodimir Kapusianyk”, you’ll find many references to the man, who for years has been struggling to write his definitive treatise on the science of dragons, entitled Dragons: Our Fiery Friends. Dr. Kapusianyk claims to have seen a dragon himself, in 1911, mislabeled as a rare winged garter snake in a travelling fair, and in the Foreword to his book, which has been widely disseminated online, he sets out in brief his discoveries about the physiology and history of dragons. Alas, as you will read, Dr. Kapusianyk is now 98 years old and in a nursing home in Moose Jaw, and only hoping to find someone else to carry on his life’s work.
He shows up in a high school student’s PowerPoint presentation about dragons. He shows up on any number of blogs. He shows up on a Harry Potter fan site as an authority cited in someone’s recreation of what a course in Dragon Studies might be like at Hogwarts. He shows up at various pages devoted to dragons in myth and folklore. Most interestingly, he shows up in a term paper on dragons offered by many of the sites devoted to selling term papers to students too lazy or dishonest to write their own.
Well, I’m here to give the Afternoon Edition a major (OK, a minor…make that VERY minor…scoop.)
Volodimir Kapusianyk does not exist. I created him out of whole cloth for an article in InQuest Magazine, a magazine devoted to collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, at least a decade ago.
It’s interesting to note that even when he only existed in print, as far as I know, I used to get the occasional letter from eager youngsters who wanted to meet Dr. Kapusianyk and take up the torch of dragon studies from his failing hands. I would gently point out that he was not, in fact, an actual person.
Then, on Tuesday, March 5, 2002, I was looking for old stuff on my computer I could put online, and came across the InQuest article. Just for fun, I posted part of the article–not the whole thing, where I had talked about Dr. Kapusianyk being in a Moose Jaw rest home, but just the fictitious introduction. I introduced it as “A fragment found in the depths of The Stacks here at the Intergalactic Library. The complete manuscript of the textbook to which this is an introduction, alas, cannot be found,” and ended with, ” Should anyone have Dr. Kapusianyk’s complete textbook, I would be most interested to peruse it.”
I didn’t think much more about it until, just recently, I started getting the occasional email telling me that, sadly, Dr. Kapusianyk had never finished his textbook and was in a rest home in Moose Jaw…which I of course knew, having put him there myself.
I confess I’ve toyed with the idea of elaborating the idea. It would be easy to put up an additional post claiming Dr. Kapusianyk recently died but called me, the well-known Saskatchewan science writer, just before his death and bequeathed me all his notes. I could eventually write the entire fictitious textbook online…
…but I won’t. I’m too honest to be a good hoaxster.
I somehow doubt, though, that my confession will in any way put paid to the saga of Dr. Kapusianyk. Internet misinformation, it seems, has a life of its own.