Let the Net surfer beware: fact, fiction mix on Web

by Melanie Evans

The use of unsubstantiated World Wide Web information by a former White House press secretary sparked debate at the University surrounding Internet reliability.
Pierre Salinger made public accusations that a U.S. Navy missile might have caused the crash of TWA Flight 800. While the established member of the press corps insists he has other sources, the striking similarity between Salinger’s information and an anonymous memo circulating on the Internet worried many. His critics wonder if this unproven Internet rumor isn’t his main source.
Incidents like this fuel a debate between those at the University who favor regulation of the Internet — similar to broadcast regulation by the Federal Communications Commission — and those who hope to prevent misuse by education, not restriction of access. But everyone familiar with online services agrees that organization is needed, whether by establishing national standards for publishing or by labeling factual and fictional Web entries.
Laura Gurak, a professor of rhetoric, said education and self-regulation is the desirable approach to organizing the Internet.
In her book, Privacy and Persuasion in Cyberspace: The Online Protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip, Gurak studies “computer-mediated communication.”
She said she realizes the value of the open forum that the Internet has become. The unique community it fosters and the new venue it provides for freedom of expression is important, she said.
The community that the Internet develops and its potential as a tool for discussion and dissent is the subject of her book, which is slated to be published this spring.
Gurak argues that open forums ought to be protected from regulation or corporatization.
Although there is misinformation on the Internet, she said, there is also a multiplicity of views and values that are appropriate in a democratic, diverse country.
“When you give everyone the chance to talk, not everyone knows what they’re talking about. That doesn’t make it bad,” Gurak said.
But for some University students, unfamiliarity with the Internet, how to use it and where the information is coming from keeps them from using the Web as a source of information.
Bob Anderson, a University senior, does not rely on the Internet for research for classes.
However, he said the Net is a good way to conduct consumer research. But when looking for information on a product, he looks to see if its Web page is sponsored by a company who might have a vested interest in the use of the information.
Anderson said he disregards all other information, whether it be Web pages put together by individuals or by organizations, as opinion.
Kathleen Hansen has been researching electronically for more than 18 years. A professor in the University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, with a background in English and Library Science, Hansen is concerned about how professionals and student journalists use Internet information.
The only electronically gathered information Hansen said she trusts is from sources such as Lexis-Nexis, one of the “Cadillacs” of search engines. For Hansen, the modern incarnation of the Internet is just not credible.
“It’s the 90s version of the CB radio. Anyone with a big mouth and a piece of equipment can participate,” she said.
Hansen said the Net is a perfect environment for opinion and rumor to circulate as fact. She said she believes many people who use the Internet don’t know how easy it is to construct a Web page.
This, coupled with the tendency for people to take anything from a computer screen at its face value, can make judging the difference between fact and fiction difficult for a novice Internet user, Hansen said.
Although the dangers of rumor and misinformation on the Internet are cause for concern, the alternative is the loss of the freedom of expression and a variety of information that is available via an open medium such as the Internet, Gurak said.
Bamshad Mobasher, an assistant professor in the University’s computer science department, sees Internet organization as a trade-off between quick, easy access to diverse ideas and reliable but controlled information.
“The price paid for retrieving information from a broad range of sources with the touch of a finger, the click of a mouse, is the cost of having to do the verification yourself,” he said.
But the diversity of ideas is seen by many as a worthwhile investment — one that should not be restricted, Mobasher said.
Instead of placing Net access in the hands of the telecommunications or cable industry, or leaving the suitability of Internet content to the government, Mobasher said teaching people to critically read the Internet could be seen as an acceptable way of regulating information.