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Be Not Deceived

October 25, 2002

“Be not deceived,” the good book says.

Indeed, but how?

“Don’t check your common sense at the door,” for one. So says another good book, “The web of deception: misinformation on the Internet.”

The editor, Anne Mintz, once taught at Columbia University’s library school and is now Director of Knowledge Management at Forbes Inc. These are pretty good credentials for editing this book.

Consider some of the chapters: “Web hoaxes, counterfeit sites, and other spurious information,” “Charlatans, leeches, and old wives: medical misinformation,” “It’s a dangerous world out there: misinformation in the corporate universe.”

And of course, “Brother have you got a dime? Charity scams on the web.” This chapter discusses some of the instant scams that appeared within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Towers.

The Internet showed both sides of itself in those first few days. Con artists were on the Internet immediately, but so were others. Email was the only communication available for many while the long distance lines were clogged. The Internet was a source of instant news and discussion.

But who do you trust for news on the Internet? The Internet is like an enormous marketplace, with people shouting — either at you or someone else — trying to get attention.

The man in the trenchcoat may show you a liner full of watches, or he may show you something else. Beware.

The “Web of deception” does not merely tell horror stories about the Internet. It’s purpose is to teach you how to use the Internet with sophistication to avoid trouble and find good stuff.

Chapter Eight is short but interesting: “How to evaluate a web site.” Which is not much different than evaluating any writing, but the Internet is still new to many, and the wonder of it leaves people credulous for a while.

Aside from learning the lesson that a good-looking website may not have good information, users must learn how the Internet works. For example, many have learned about domain names the painful way. You probably don’t mean to go to whitehouse.com (pornography). You might be looking for whitehouse.org (scandal) or whitehouse.net (satire).

Or you could be looking for the official White House site at whitehouse.gov. Laws have been made now that prohibit “cybersquatting,” and maybe they’ll get stronger in time, but right now, you have to be savvy. And perhaps thick-skinned. It’s like holding onto your pocketbook in a crowded market.

But learning the Internet means learning the technology. “Web of deception” includes two chapters about search engines and how they work.

The search engine “arms race” is described. When web designers learned that early search engines gave rankings by the number of times a keyword appeared, they put invisible text on the page — text that the search engines could see, but not you. Of course, the search engines responded. They grew more sophisticated, and so did designers — on and on.

Many search sites place paying advertisers first among their results. It’s something you might like to know.

It’s very much like shouting in a marketplace, like neon signs on any American highway strip, like much human behavior.

How do you shop at a market? For example, you inform yourself about how to pick out good produce, who the sellers are, where the stuff is grown, what the prices are.

This will work for the Internet, too. The library has other books, such as the Super Searcher books, that might help.

Ultimately, the truth is your responsibility. Be not deceived.

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