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Mutual assured baloney

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The world’s first website was launched on August 6, 1991. By rights, someone should have programmed a bunch of Twitter ‘bots to sing happy birthday to the World Wide Web. (And thanks to my friend Mike Benz for pointing out this historical marker to me.)

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Speaking of ‘bots, while up-to-date statistics are hard to find, and the sensational nature of the subject matter invites exaggeration, there clearly are a lot of social media ‘bots out there, and in particular there are a lot of ‘bots out there that spread misinformation, disinformation, fake news, baloney, and other forms of utterly nonsensical but dangerous propaganda.

Back when Mutual Assured Destruction was the backbone of U.S. nuclear military strategy, it was widely understood that disarmament was desirable but unilateral disarmament would have been destabilizing.

Which leads me to wonder why those who want to spread reliable, curated content don’t deploy counterpropaganda ‘bots.

Most of what we read about countering  ‘bot-driven disinformation campaigns is defensive – how to recognize the dangerous little critters. I wonder what a ‘bot arms race might look like.

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Speaking of the Internet and disinformation, no, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet. Al Gore also never claimed to have invented technology for countering disinformation, which is just as well given how utterly inept he was at it. As proof of his ineptitude, most Americans still seem to believe that he did claim to have invented the Internet.

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Continuing to speak of the Internet and disinformation, SpotFakeNews.info has published a handy guide to recognizing disinformation. Its step-by-step is as follows (follow the link for details): (1) develop a critical mindset; (2) check the source; (3) who else is reporting the story? (4) think about the evidence; (5) don’t accept images at face value; (6) listen to your gut.

The full text behind #6 tells you to pause and ask if what you’re reading is designed to play on your hopes and fears. It tells you, that is, to do the exact opposite of listening to your gut. Go figure.

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Meanwhile, as we are, after all, celebrating the birth of the World Wide Web, a quick timeline: In the beginning (of the Web, not the Internet itself) was SGML – the Standard Generalized Markup Language. It was a syntax for defining tags that could be used to identify parts of documents. Everyone who came into contact with it knew it was important. The main barrier to its adoption was that nobody could figure out anything useful for it to do.

Then CERN’s Tim Berners-Lee, wanting to make Ted Nelson’s idea of hypertext real, figured out that a simplified version of SGML could be just the ticket. He called the result the HyperText Markup Language – HTML.

To make HTML useful, Berners-Lee then created WorldWideWeb (later Nexus) – the first web browser.

Shortly thereafter, in 1993, NCSA’s Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina wrote Mosaic, the first web browser anyone ever heard of.

Somewhere in there, Al Gore sponsored legislation privatizing Internet governance and encouraging the transformation of the Internet’s underlying connectivity, from a fragile spiderweb of low-speed channels to a robust backbone-based architecture.

Imagine what the world would be like, right now at this moment as you read these words, had none of this history happened.

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Bob’s last word: In the absence of a TIP program we do need tools of some kind to help us differentiate honest information sources from those whose purpose is to deceive.

One tool every information source can deploy to help its consumers judge their reliability is to reveal the processes and practices they employ to gather, process, and publish. The Washington Post provides a laudable example. You’ll find it here: Policies and Standards.

I haven’t yet prepared one for KJR, but will get started on the project shortly.

Bob’s sales pitch: Speaking once again of Internet-driven disinformation, in 1997 I proposed creation of a TIP (Trusted Information Provider) certification program. Later in 1997, and on through the present, this proposal was almost universally ignored.

But on the other hand, in 2010 the Harvard Business Review published its “10 Must Reads.” Amusingly enough, not one of the articles HBR considered must-reads made any mention of information technology or the Internet.

Nice to know they’ve been keeping up with the times, even if they aren’t keeping up with yours truly.

Comments (7)

  • And what news organization is worthy of trust? Fox, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN? Who will decide? Is anyone really worthy at this point of being called a trusted news source. Based on population alone, if there was a vote, China Daily would probably win. But is was a nice thought anyway.

    • For me, personally? I don’t generally get my news from broadcast/cable outlets. They’re trapped in the 24-hour news cycle, also trapped in the economics that lead to a preference for talking heads over actual newsgathering. Television newsgathering is expensive.

      I tend to trust the Washington Post and my local newspaper as sources. Neither is perfect; both have published policies and standards. Importantly, both run retractions when they get a story wrong, which I consider to be an important marker. Also, reading their news pages I don’t see obvious bias.

      I also regularly read opinion-writers of all political persuasions, but I regularly avoid opinion writers who anchor their writing in tribalism, and limit my reading of writers I agree with, unless a headline suggests they have something to say I haven’t already run across.

      I don’t know if that helps or not.


    algore did make that claim. I remember the interview where he justified it. He based it on his govt position being overseer of the project that did the actual work. But algore did try to take credit for it as have many other managers I have worked for who took credit for the work that those under them had actually done. I saw IBM give a senior manager a big award for doing just that. which goes to show that politics and personal promotion pay more than actual work.

  • Looked the different thoughts! And, as you have seen in the comments already, as a nation we seem to have lost a shared definition of fact. (My news gathering includes WaPo, NYT and WSJ, and long articles from publications such Wired, Atlantic, NewYorker.)
    I read your mentalfloss link and was struck by this” This evolved into the National High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, a $1.7 billion project linking universities, libraries, government facilities, and industrial labs in a common network. The NHPCCA— otherwise known as the “Gore Bill”— also funded computer scientists who developed Mosaic, the first graphic Web browser.

    The 1992 expiration date set for funding raised the question of how to finance further expansion. Again, Gore was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992, which allowed businesses and individuals to use the Internet commercially.”

  • Al Gore and the US Congress gave the Internet away. Imagine if the federal government had retained ownership of the internet. User fees would pay for federal programs (no federal deficit). Only a legitimate card catalog would be available to find internet sites (no Google scourge). Only verified users could log on (no trolls). Email would be “stamped” for a fee (no spam). Security would be unified (no cyber-terrorism). Fraudulent web sites, criminal social media posts, disinformation, Trump (nope, nope, nope, and nope).

  • Interesting dialog. I recall my first email journey via MicroNet and the Heath world on my trusty H-8 and how happy to get the H-89 which allowed storage. I lucked into a connection to Usenet where we could discuss many things, particularly various standards (RFC’s). Then came open servers allowing tedious remote access. I recall that first website open to public access and development of a WWW thing. There were Usenet groups dedicated to politics with the same type of characters seen today imagining all sorts of things to be peer accepted or dashed in flame wars.

    I still get the local paper delivered in traditional fashion, yet also track many other venues for news. My public library gives me the pay sites, WSJ, NYT, WaPo but I also know how to cheat but don’t, the library won’t get me in trouble. I find an inability to uniquely trust any source without analysis to consider their bias. But I’m really worried about traffic related to mis/dis-information. When politics are involved, bias rears it’s head. I often watch CSPAN testimony because reportage massages messages to suit their viewpoint; once fooled trust erodes. It has become difficult to assess truth, but keywords like certain adjectives such as debunked suggest a bias. In the past we didn’t see so much of those judgement assessments in reporting. Fair to say what someone said and include reporting of those asserting an untruth about the statement. Critical thinking is needed.

    As far as inventing the Internet, the RFC’s did that. The politicians provided funding incidental to objectives of the government. The RFC teams are unsung heroes in making it work. By creating the domains and opening to the public, we have what we enjoy. Pity we couldn’t require an operating license in the process along with assigned handles (call signs). I still have my Compuserve numeric ID, oddly it still works!

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