A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I'm actually a lesbian [Citation Needed]

I hope that got your attention. And if you haven't been following the story here's a brief summation - Syrian gay activist Amina Arraf, author of a popular blog "A gay girl in Damascus" has transpired to be in reality a 40 something American called Tom MacMaster. This upset a lot of Arraf's followers, including owner of LezGetReal.com Paula Brooks who helped supply information that led to MacMaster's online outing. In a deliciously stupid turn of events that one simply couldn't make up because it's just too daft, it has been revealed that Paula Brooks is actually retired construction worker Bill Garber. One couldn't make this up, and as to the motivations behind it ? The mind boggles

The lesbian blogger is..Old man Whitters? "And I wudda got away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids!"

Many are outraged by the audacity of such posturing, and understandably they feel betrayed in some cases. Whether this feeling is justified, the truth of the matter is that nonsense and fabulist material has been on the internet since its inception and will likely be so for time immemorial. I'm not that interested in the emotional investment factor or the 'morality' of using a sock puppet identity. I'm more interested in how people are so taken in and why we haven't learnt from prior experience. Snopes have a great article on false blogs, and recently it has been the subject of legal wranglings. None of this is even that new - The term 'sockpuppet' in this context has been in common parlance since 1996.

And why shouldn't he ? You invented him!

Wikipedia has this definition for sock puppet;

A sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an online community. In its earliest usage, a sockpuppet was a false identity through which a member of an Internet community speaks with or about himself or herself, pretending to be a different person,[1] like a ventriloquist manipulating a hand puppet. In current usage, the perception of the term has been extended beyond second identities of people who already post in a forum or blog to include other uses of misleading online identities. For example, a New York Times article claims that "sockpuppeting" is defined as "the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one's self, allies or company."[2]

What surprises me isn't that people make fake identities and sock puppets - that is a byproduct of the relative anonymity the Internet offers. Even at the age of 13 I was well away that if user handle HoTGRL4u asked "wanna cyber?" the probability that 'she' had a penis approached one. No, what surprises me is people's willingness to believe even the most outlandish of stories without a single iota of evidence to support them. It's as if the mere act of putting something online somehow imparts it with credibility. But here's the kicker..

It doesn't. Not one little bit.

So why am I writing about such a topic in this, a science / medicine blog ? Because the ability to evaluate the veracity of material is paramount to making an informed choice on contentious matters of science and health. Online one will find thousands of websites ranging on topics ranging from vaccinations to nuclear fusion and all too often suspect claims are made, motivated more by an ideological agenda than by any basis in fact. A website or blog is never adequate 'proof' of anything unless it presents information that can be easily verified or falsified. When information is presented as fact, it must be presented in context and with citations to reliable sources. The Internet is awash with information, some of which is exceptionally useful and some of use is absolute dross. Being able to separate the useful from the positively awful is a skill that everyone should have in these days of Internet for everyone. I'll try to blog more about this in future when I find the time.

But in the interim, there is a wikipedia credo for dealing with suspect information that I think we should all bear in mind... 

[Citation needed]

Lovingly lifted from the wonderful XKCD.COM, original is here. Go visit!

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