For retired veteran ABC newsman Pierre Salinger, it was an on-line humiliation, a bogus story he got off the Internet and bought hook, line and sinker about the U.S. Navy shooting down TWA Flight 800 on July 17.
Salinger went public with his account, which he said he got from sources in “French security” in Europe. It made headlines across the globe until Salinger was told a few hours later that he was quoting a long-discredited piece of Internet e-mail as his only source.
When shown a copy of the dubious document by a CNN news crew in France, Salinger, 71, said, “Yes, that’s it. That’s the document. Where did you get it?”
The journalists got it where Salinger’s unnamed source in French intelligence got it. They got it where hundreds of thousands of other people have encountered it.
They got it on the Internet’s World Wide Web, with its unregulated ability to move any information from anybody who cares to post it across the globe.
Salinger’s chagrin is merely the latest outbreak of the disturbing new information-age phenomenon of bogus news, one that is coming under increasing scrutiny by social scientists, lawyers and academicians.
America is awash in a growing and often disruptive avalanche of false information that takes on a life of its own in the electronic ether of the Internet, talk radio and voice mail until it becomes impervious to denial and debunking.
“There is a very strong strain of media populism because of the Internet in today’s society, and people grasp for these false stories because they think the Internet can be trusted more than can the major institutions of America,” said Bernard Beck, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University.
“People like the notion of the jungle grapevine,” Beck said. “They take comfort in the idea that there are ways of passing information along that bypasses the establishment. It is very much in keeping with a general distrust of institutions we’re seeing more and more in America.”
The social scientist noted that before Salinger’s embarrassing Internet interlude, the most recent outbreak of the phenomenon had been the widespread belief, particularly among African-Americans, that the San Jose Mercury News had broken a story that proved the Central Intelligence Agency had been involved in selling crack cocaine in California inner-city neighborhoods as part of its efforts to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the early 1980s.
Mercury News executives have since argued repeatedly that their stories were carefully written to never claim the CIA either allowed the Contras to sell drugs or helped them get the drugs into the U.S. The CIA has denied the allegations.
But the newspaper did publish its series on its World Wide Web site, suggesting if not stating outright that the CIA’s secret army helped unleash the crack epidemic that has disproportionately befallen impoverished urban blacks.
The series was then copied by a variety of political activists and widely reprinted on the Internet, replete with claims that it was proof of the long-held suspicions of government participation in inner-city drug sales.
Likewise, in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, many of the Internet’s newsgroups and Web sites were filled with accounts of black helicopters, enemy troops secretly massing on the U.S. borders with Mexico and other rumors frequently promoted by ultra right-wing members of various militia movements.
Unfounded tales of government plots abound on the Internet are fueled at least in part by the memory of conspiracies that actually happened, everywhere from Watergate to the Iran-Contra disclosures.
Nonetheless, experts like Northwestern’s Beck interviewed after the Salinger episode said they see a dramatic change in the amount of false information confronting Americans through the powers and growing popularity of the Internet.
They also warned that people are more inclined than ever to believe the falsehoods even as they arrive in unprecedented numbers.
Dan Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University, believes there is a fantastic conspiracy to fit every world view. “There are (false) rumors to meet the needs of old guys like me who are in the middle of road, and others for the paint-ball right wingers and still others for the paranoid left wingers,” Polsby said.
Polsby said he is concerned the confusion will lead to calls for censorship, which he opposes.
Other experts warned it is unlikely that government will ever be able to stop the influx of falsehoods anyway.
William Berry, professor at the University of Illinois Institute for Communications Research, said that the chaos caused by Internet misinformation may eventually end as people learn to be just as skeptical of what they hear on-line as they are about what they hear on the radio or on the commuter train.
“The Internet doesn’t have a monopoly on false news,” said Berry. “In fact,” he said, “sometimes the false news that gets spread on the Internet wouldn’t go very far at all if it didn’t get picked up by other media such as talk radio or cable television or other outlets.”