The misinformation superhighway

In the summer of 1994, I met with a group of techies at the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington, Virginia, to talk about this great new thing called the Internet.

Actually, the Internet wasn’t that new. It had been around for years as DARPANet, a creation of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. While working on Capitol Hill in the 80s, I helped out on legislation that transferred DARPANet to the National Science Foundation where it became the Internet. Don’t recall seeing then Tennessee Senator Al Gore in the room although he would later claim to have invented the Internet.

The meeting, which grew into a monthly series of gatherings, became an idea exchange on ways to use the ‘Net to help spread information.  Somebody had already coined the phrase “Information Superhighway.”

In 1994, most people didn’t have ‘Net access. Web browsers were crude tools that displayed text in rudimentary forms.  A fast modem speed was 2400 baud.

But the general consensus around the room was that the ‘Net could become a way to spread information quickly, debunk rumors, and correct other forms of misinformation.

Such discussions led me to start Capitol Hill Blue in October 1994. At the time, only the Raleigh News & Observer (NANDONet) has a news site online.

Blue is still around even though NANDONet bit the dust a few years ago. Gone two are many other grand political news experiments that followed Blue: Politics USA, American Politics, etc.

Gone, too, I’m afraid, is the pipe dream of the Internet becoming a trusted source of information.

Instead of the “Information Superhighway,” the ‘Net has become the “Misinformation Superhighway,” an ever-engulfing sea of extremism, fringe web sites, paranoia and outright lies.

We saw firsthand how the Internet could be used to spread lies and innuendo during the Clinton administration when a host of right-wing bulletin boards and purported “news sites” sprung up claim Clinton and his wife masterminded the murders of enemies,  Fringe sites like FreeRepublic claimed the deaths of some 90 individuals close to the Clintons died “under mysterious circumstances.”

No proof, actually, but just enough innuendo to keep tongues wagging.

When TWA Flight 800 crashed into Long Island Sound, conspiracy web sites appeared on the Internet, claiming that either terrorists with a stinger missile or a wayward missile from a Navy ship brought down the plane. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the plane exploded because of gas fumes and bad wiring in a center fuel tank but that didn’t satisfy the conspiracy buffs who screamed “government cover up!”

Some of the best investigative reporters on the planet looked into the TWA 800 claims and no one could find evidence to support the wild-eyed paranoia of the conspiracy nuts. Only former John F. Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, living out his final days as a TV correspondent in Paris and suffering from Alzheimer’s, supported the outlandish theories.

Lame conspiracy theories like this are nothing new. People to this day swear U.S. astronauts never set foot on the moon – believing the government staged each and every moon landing in a TV studio somewhere in Texas or Arizona.

There are times when the ‘Net can get to the truth. Bloggers who uncovered Dan Rather’s use of forged documents in his “investigation” of President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard is a good example. So were the recent efforts by bloggers to uncover a record of plagiarism by a right-wing blogger hired by The Washington Post.

But all too often the Internet fuels extremism, paranoia and tin-hat conspiracy theories at cyberspeed. It also fosters hate, bigotry and racism.

Google “nigger” and you come up not only with a list of sites devoted to explaining the origin and use of the racial slur but many more hate sites aimed at deepening the racial divide in this nation.

Nazis and white extremists groups run several thousand web sites aimed at spreading their hate and nastiness. Anti-Semitic web sites abound, including many who also promote the ridiculous belief that the U.S. government planned and executed the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Over the weekend, I discovered, much to my horror, that stories from Capitol Hill Blue have been reprinted on some of these anti-Semitic web sites. Our stories carry a copyright and reprinting them without permission is a federal crime. I would never give permission for use of our material on a web site that promotes anti-Semitism or hatred towards any ethnic group or religion. Starting today, my lawyer will track down those web sites and send out “cease and desist” letters to each that use our articles without permission.  If necessary, I will take these people to court. I want nothing to do with them or the hate and lies they spread.

The discovery, however, also created some concern among me and my editors. Has our dogged pursuit of what we believe to be the truth contributed to the belief that we are part of this great “everything is a conspiracy” movement? Have we been too sloppy in reporting some stories? Should we have gone back and taken a second look before publishing?

I’m too close to the situation to be an objective judge. So I’ve asked other reporters, journalism professors and political scientists to review the archives of Capitol Hill Blue to identify any and all stories that, in their opinion, don’t pass the basic tenets of journalism.

Any articles – by me or anyone else – that, in their opinion, don’t pass the smell test will be reviewed. Sources will be rechecked and – if they cannot be verified or if we discover a hidden agenda by those sources – the stories will either be revised or removed from our archives.

If we are, indeed, a fellow traveler on the “Misinformation Superhighway,” then we’re headed for the nearest exit ramp.