Internet hoaxes hit politics

Becky Hogge
10 April 2006

There are various theories about the origins of human language. My personal favourite is the one where the far-from-alpha male in a pack of primates imitates the call for danger during feeding time, smugly tucking into the best of the kill once the other monkeys have run away. That human language could have evolved from its very start out of deception has a certain dark beauty to it.

The way information is presented and transmitted between the evolved humans that now walk this planet can be equally deceptive. But these days the targets of hoaxes and scams are not likely to go bounding into the trees for cover at the first alarm call, as two leading public figures whose careers now lie in tatters found out last month.

Seiji Maehara, the leader many had hoped would revive the fortunes of the Japan's major opposition party the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) after its depressing performance in last September's general election, was forced to resign at the end of March, in what has been called a "fabricated email fiasco". The man at the heart of the scandal was Hisayasu Nagata, a DPJ member who, on the strength of an email, went to the Diet and levelled accusations of dodgy alliances with a disgraced internet business against the son of the ruling party's general secretary Tsutomu Takebe. Nagata's mistake was to trust the email without questioning its source, and he and his party paid dearly for it.

Meanwhile, South African intelligence chief Billy Masetlha has been sacked from his post and may face arrest after it emerged that Project Avani, a clandestine political investigation labelled "South Africa's Watergate" by a leader of the opposition, had been steered by a series of faked emails and forum exchanges. Among other things, the faked exchanges implicated senior members of the African National Congress party in a conspiracy against Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president currently in the dock on charges of rape. The trial of Muziwendoda Sikhona Kunene, the alleged hoaxer, has been postponed until early May.

If pornography seeded the lay internet, then email hoaxes were the sweet-smelling muck that helped the mainstream network blossom. Back when many of us were fledgling virtual animals, with our free AOL/BT dial-up CDs and hotmail accounts, we may even have believed that a dying child's last wish was to have an email chain letter forwarded to as many people around the world as possible. Yet as the spam and viruses flowed, we shed that naivety pretty rapidly. But it's amazing how other sorts of hoax emails can still permeate the public consciousness.

The US Department of Energy's directory of known hoax emails (which almost passes for a credible hoax in itself, but is in fact for real), details many of the most virulent hoaxes the emerging net has seen. Most take the form of cautionary tales, and the assumption demanded of the reader is that the mainstream media – no doubt at the behest of the one-eyed lizard-people who control it – are ignoring the story in order to wilfully endanger the well-being of the general public. It is left up to the hoaxer to make one last desperate bid for humanity and send his story out into the ether with those fateful words "forward to everyone you know".

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Generally, the hoaxes beat perfectly in rhythm with the fluctuating paranoia of an emerging, globalised world. There is the story of the innocent woman who, after an enjoyable evening at the theatre, got up from her seat to discover she had a tiny needle jammed in her thigh. On finding it had an Alice-in-Wonderland style label hanging off it (curiouser and curiouser), she read with trepidation the hollow words "Congratulations, you have HIV". Behind the spread of global disease follows the lengthening shadow of agri-business and the corporate multi-national, epitomised in the millennium hoax that the Colonel's finest family restaurant was forced by authorities to rebrand as KFC because the genetically-modified meat it serves could no longer legally be referred to as chicken.

And later that year, many heard the considerably creepy story of the young doctor who, after accepting a drink from a stranger in an airport departure lounge, woke up days later in a bath full of ice with a telephone on the table next to him and a note cheerfully informing him "we have removed both your kidneys, dial 911 immediately and DO NOT MOVE". When he got through to emergency services, they seemed eerily prepared to deal with his plight – and why shouldn't they be, in the new, scary world of medical frontierism and human trafficking?

It was the early prevalence of hoaxes like these which persuaded many information and media professionals that the internet would never flourish as a credible information source. Of course, the expansion of the world wide web and the rise of citizen journalism have since put paid to the doubters. What these early sceptics may have overlooked was that humans have always hoaxed – civilisations have been perpetuated and wars started by them, including, arguably, the current conflict in Iraq.

Hoaxing is a grand human tradition, and whether for pleasure or profit its aim is to get as many people as possible to believe it – so it will always make use of the most developed communications system, be that speech (like those monkeys in the first example) telegraph (like Otto von Bismarck's Ems telegraph that started the Franco-Prussian war) or email.

In fact, it's fair to say that, as the Maehara and Masetlha cases attest, the rise and rise of the information network has made hoaxes harder, not easier, to pull off. Over at the world's greatest demonstration of the social foundation of information, Wikipedia, if an article is flagged as a suspected hoax, hundreds of man hours can go into investigating its validity.

Among pages and pages of discussion devoted to outfoxing hoaxers on Wikipedia, one particular exchange, detailing the behaviour of a suspected hoaxer, stands out. "He normally uses innocuous edit summaries, mixes questionable contributions with useful edits [and] has good command of English" – could one find a more general recipe for hoaxing success?

It was certainly the strategy Google chose when it celebrated the hoaxing day April Fool's Day (April 1) with the launch of its beta service Google Romance. With all the personal search preferences stored in the Googleplex, and nothing to do with it but invade users' privacy even further, it seemed only natural that an algorithm be created to match potential netizens with the searcher of their dreams. After all, in the words of the Google team, "when you think about it, love is just another search problem".

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