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Wild 'facts' available all over the Web

You've heard the joke "It must be true; it was on the Internet."

That's a problem with the World Wide Web. Anybody can publish anything.

When I was kid, the written word carried weight. I thought of books as gospel. Newspapers and magazines had editors, fact checkers and proofreaders. There was a feeling that printed material came with trust.

In the Internet age, it's buyer beware. The Internet has changed our lives, 99 percent for the better. But it's that other 1 percent that has me worked up today.

Years ago, my family's first home-computer-to-Internet connection made trips to the library "old school," or so we thought.

My daughter, in the fifth grade at the time, wrote a paper on Martin Luther King Jr. When she got the assignment back, points were taken off for several factual errors. The one that sticks out in my mind was the incorrect date for King's "I have a dream" speech.

We retraced her online research and returned to the source. Sure enough, the site dedicated to the memory of MLK was riddled with errors. The site looked professional and appeared legitimate. We found a disclaimer tucked away at the bottom of the page that stated the site was a project of a fifth-grade class somewhere in Pennsylvania. Certainly, the students' efforts were well-intentioned, but also erroneous.

Needless to say, my daughter learned a lesson about taking everything on the Internet at its word.

But a more recent experience was even worse; the misinformation was intentional.

To supplement knowledge gained from a book I'm reading, I googled "Civil War Facts" and clicked on the item that came up No. 1 on the search results. What I found was a site with an article on the Civil War and a photo of some re-enactors in uniform.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"The United States Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American History, claiming more lives than The American Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, The War against Switzerland, The War of 1812, and the Vietnam War combined. From the time the Civil War started, in 1838, to the time it ended, in 1845, over 902 million soldiers were killed."

Something's rotten. Virtually nothing is correct. As the essay continued, so did the outrageous errors.

For most, the errors will jump off the computer screen. But I wonder about the fifth-grader who may not know that "902 million soldiers" is way over the top or that the "War against Switzerland" only exists in someone's twisted imagination or that the years of the war are off by more than 20 years.

There was no indication on the site that this was bogus information. In all appearances, it was presented as a truthful, accurate narrative. It came up first in the search results. And it made me mad.

Why would someone go to this trouble? A practical joke? I can't find the humor.

Eventually, I noticed that "idiotica" was part of the URL for the site and I felt a bit "idiotica" for not noticing sooner. (I won't list the complete URL because I have no intention of driving traffic to the site. I will point out that "encyclopedia" was also a part of the URL.)

Self-publishing on the Internet is so easily accomplished that a lot of garbage is being dumped there. Browsers need to be wary.

Some questions to ask as you surf: Does the site list the author? What is the author's intent? Is the site paid for or sponsored by someone who has an interest in how the information is presented? It's also good to check if the site is current. Is the last update posted?

For more details, check out "Evaluating Credibility of Information on the Internet," by Ronald B. Standler at www.rbs0.com/credible.pdf.

WWW can stand for the Wild, Wild Web, too. Proceed with caution.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.