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Dealing with the moral ramifications of Gullible.info

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For all the traffic it gets, it should go without saying that Gullible.info has its fair share of detractors (learn more). In my experience, the most vitriolic of these people are typically people who believed it at one point and then came to their senses. These folks write emails that have subject lines that read "fake facts....I'm disappointed!" and contain lines like "Good bye and good ridance." Their words are often hurtful, they usually suggest I do things to myself that are physically impossible, and they are just so smarmy and self-righteous. (And there's only room for one of us.)

But there are also people who don't like the site and have understood its concept from the beginning. These are the people who actually present valid arguments and challenge me to defend the site I created and the justification of its purpose. I stumbled across one such argument the other day, and I'd like to try and stick up for myself. I'm also trackbacking this link to the original blog. I'd love to hear the author's opinions on my thoughts.

Here's the starting point for this discussion, which can also be found in its original format here.

The Fascinating World of Incorrect Trivia

There's a site out there -- gullible.info -- that contains of the most bizarre and interesting collection of trivial factoids I've ever seen. Since its inception over a year ago, over 200 individual items have been posted, in every area of human (and non-human) endeavor. The amount of potential fodder for cocktail parties is astonishing, and puts the (monthly!) Atlantic List to shame. Check these, for example, from August 8.

  • More Tony Awards have been given to musicals about trains than any other topic.
  • Novelists, on average, invent nine words over the course of their careers that have never been used before. One in 300 of these words are ever used again.
  • Six percent of the source code to Microsoft Windows XP is unchanged since Windows 1.0. 43 percent is unchanged since Windows 95.
  • There are at least 4 pirate ships still actively pillaging transoceanic shipments.
  • In seven out of the last 20 years, at least one major calendar manufacturer has printed the wrong date for Easter.
Remarkable. The guy who runs it must have a crack research staff.

Or maybe he's just making everything up.

"The site's creator, Kyle Stoneman, said that not everyone who visits the site realizes the giant grain of salt with which they are to take the information. "I would be inclined to say there's a good percentage of people who don't put any effort into questioning the source," said Stoneman, 19, a student at George Washington University. "I'm legitimately frightened by the fact that people will believe what they read on the site."

"Stoneman, a political communications major, said he started Gullible.info last fall as a social experiment, parodying people's willingness to accept bits of information without question. "It's parodying not only the whole genre of trivia, but also how quickly we believe things," he said. One illustration of that, he said, is that readers frequently write in with corrections. "Some people can get very defensive," he said.

Well, duh, if you disguise the fact that you're putting up fraudulent material, of course people are going to believe it. There's no disclaimer of any sort on the site, just some coy allusions to the fact that it might be a joke. I'd think the five people who have cited gullible.info in their theses (which is frightening, I'll admit), might justifiably feel they were defrauded. I know I would.

If this is an "experiment," then it's in bad faith.
Interesting points. And in the interest of full disclosure, I'd like to readily admit that these are questions that I've wrestled with myself, and I do sometimes mull over the ethics of the site. However, as you may know, the site is still online, and will be for some time, which means that ultimately I always reach the conclusion that the world is at least marginally better with Gullible.info than it would be without it. Why is that.

Let me flesh out the arguments I put out in the NYT piece about Gullible.info that he references. Essentially, my motivation behind Gullible.info is threefold.

1. It is a creative endeavor for me. When I was updating the site daily, it forced me to be creative and think about new and unique ways.

2. It is a learning experience for visitors. It demonstrates why we need to be teaching people how to asses the reliability of sources in an information-rich environment.

3. It is a social experiment. Not an experiment in any scientific or academic sense of the word, more like a kid mixing all the chemicals in his chemistry set together just to see what happens (side note: I did this as a child).

I think the second argument is most at play in this discussion, and it is what I will be using to address this person's points. I'll explain.

The Internet (among other technological developments) has provided our society with a great wealth of resources and information. The democratization of the information dissemination process has shifted our world from an information-scarce environment to an information-abundent environment. Consumers of information can now just as easily be suppliers as well. Okay, that's a lot of pseudo-academic nonsense. What does it mean in practical terms?

There is a lot of knowledge out there, and our access to that knowledge is unprecedentedly vast. But with increased access comes a new set of challenges. In an information-scarce environment, the challenge to overcome is locating information. Additionally, because of the high cost of distributing information, for the most part, what is found as a result of the laborious process is true.

The opposite problem exists in an information-abundent society. Finding information is not a challenge, but authenticating it is. Anyone can put anything on the Internet. This is a critical point, and it begs restating: Anyone can put anything on the Internet. I can put up stupid fake trivia, and a more sinister person can put fabricated information saying the Holocaust never happened.

Now, in our history, it is absolutely crucial that we teach students and anyone who will have to interact with information on the Internet, that assessing the value of an information source is exponentially more important than finding that information in the first place.

I have no disclaimers that say what I have is fake. That is a true assessment of Gullible.info. But neither do hate sites. Neither do many other agenda driven sites. But to argue that I disguise Gullible.info's true nature is absurd. I gave a full, and quite thorough, interview to one of the most widely read newspapers in the country about the nature of the site -- which is a far cry from disguising the fact that it's all "fraudulent" material.

You cannot blindly trust everything you read on the Internet. Do not do it. You will be lied to. If I'm the only person who has ever lied to you on the Internet, mercy, you are a lucky person. I have no real agenda with these lies, and if you believe them there aren't many negative ramifications. But there could be much worse problems that arise if one doesn't learn early that they need to verify their facts and/or their sources. Many people do contact me and ask me for my sources, an admirable thing to do. And I usually respond with a link to the New York Times article. It's a teachable moment.

But should someone who believed what I have to say feel defrauded? Yes. Of course they should feel defrauded. But they should feel defrauded by the education system, which hasn't given them proper tools to asses information, first, and defrauded by me second. Gullible.info isn't the disease, it's just the symptom.

I typically write back to people who have found out the awful truth about Gullible.info and have gotten mad at me. And while their initial letter usually starts off with an insult, the last one they send often ends something like this:
...the main reason got so mad is that I had told a lot of my buddies about some of the facts I found on this site, and now I have to embarrassingly own up to it or lead them astray...

But that's not the point. I understand your idea and I respect your motives, and I've gotten a bit of a laugh out of this whole thing. I just wish I hadn't fallen for it, and I know now not to believe everything from the internet.

If you want to reply, go ahead, and I may even reply back. I wish you good luck with your studies, as deceiving as they may be. I appologize for my overreaction.
Take this for what it is: A reasonable person, learning a reasonable lesson in a low-stakes situation.

Reply

Kyle: Thanks for your thoughtful reply stating your intentions. Please don't take anything I said as a personal rebuke -- on the web one tends to forget that there is a person behind every page (except for those SEO-type pages, perhaps).

I think that I'm in total agreement with you about the nature of information on the web and the instant "authority" that web pages created -- an authority which people are only too credulous about. I'm a librarian by training and a large part of the challenge librarians face in the internet age is source validation - separating trusted information from that which is not to be trusted.

What I take issue with is precisely the issue of self-disclosure, however. You say that you intentions are out in the open because you gave an interview in a large newspaper. I take issue with that. I had to google around to find that interview -- forgive me if I missed a link on the site -- and I don't think you can count on the average user to do that. Perhaps I should have surmised from the URL and the wacky nature of some of the facts that it was not meant to be taken seriously, or that it was too good to be true. But I didn't. Partly because of my own desire to believe it and get some good referencable material for my blog or conversation or whatever, but also because there was nothing on the site to indicate that it wasn't true. Would it be so bad, for example, to have an "about" page that says "everything on gullible.info is made up"?

We are a credulous people in general and the education system -- not to mention advertising -- is certainly to blame for that. My fear is that you are actually undercutting the very point you are trying to make -- that there's a lot of bogus information out there, published bypeoplpe with malicious intentions -- by deliberately blurring the line between true and false.

Best wishes, Charles H.

You know... it's called gulli

You know... it's called gullible.info. That should be kind of a hint.

(I found this site via StumbleUpon and got a much-needed laugh out of it... thanks!)

What's in a name?

I disagree with the suggestion that the name gullible.info indicates that the website is a well-crafted ruse. The name could just as likely been meant ironically, being a website with true but hard to believe information. In truth, it is ironic, but not in the way I perceived.

The argument being made in the blog is that the implausible facts make the plausible facts somehow less credible. That, to me, is backwards. In fact, even most of the improbable facts that come across by iGoogle gadget still seem plausible. And, since quite a bit of the non-facts are sound not only plausible but probable, then we discount the rest as things that are probably true. At best, if we are not "in on the joke," we simply assume that gullible.info was taken in by someone else's lie.

The issue here is that the active, intentional spreading of disinformation is, in my opinion, a morally unsound course of action. I apologize for any offence that statement might elicit, but I do feel that "the truth is generally preferable to lies." There's simply no easy way to sugar-coat that.