Web Informant #100, 3 February 1998
This web site may be a hoax !


The past couple of weeks haven't been the best of times for anyone claiming to be a journalist, especially one that operates over the Internet. Never have I seen rumors turned into facts so readily, even by our nation's more (until now) respected news organizations. So when Joey Skaggs called me with the details on his latest hoax, I though it appropriate timing on his part.

And it is appropriate timing as well since this essay is the 100th issue of Web Informant. I first started writing these missives in the fall of 1995. Back then, my intention was purely experimental: to see what directed email and a web archive of my work would bring. Now, in this post-push era, there are many Internet essayists, and now I get regular calls from public relations people trying to get copies of WI's editorial calendar.

But enough about me. Skaggs, you might recall, is a professional media hoaxster. I've met him on several occasions and he continues to keep me posted on his exploits. He spends months and sometimes years constructing elaborate hoaxes that he invariably gets the media to fall for, hook, line, and stinker.

His latest one is a doozy, concerning an environmental organization called People for Ethical Evolutionary Practices. The group "unearthed" a research project to create and spread a genetically-altered virus. When humans come into contact with the virus, they begin to crave junk food. Of course, the "virus" was found to have infected Hong Kong chickens, among other animals.

What makes Skaggs' hoax interesting is its use of a web site at stopbiopeep.com. On the site appear to be documents obtained from a disgruntled employee of the research project, including copies of emails and photos. If you had come across this web site without any prior knowledge, you would think it legit, as many of the reporters who have already covered the story did. The Associated Press ran a wire story about the organization's demonstration outside the United Nations last week, and the NY Post also had a piece in early January, along with papers in Slovenia and Australia (just in case you think we Yanks are the only gullible ones).

It is now fairly common for reporters to use materials on a web site as the source of their stories, and the web played an important role in the current Clinton saga. Matt Drudge first broke the story on his web site, after hearing that Newsweek pulled the story from its print edition two weeks ago. Newsweek later released the story via its own website several days later. And the number of new sites, including those with domain names of the principals, is quite amazing, alarming, or disgusting, depending on your perspective and the site in question.

The media was suckered into this story: sex, the President, potential lawsuits, etc. It fanned the flames in just the right way, just as Skaggs does when he creates his hoaxes. The trick here is to mix just the right amount of believable (and yet unverified) information and details to get reporters to drop their judgement. Getting one story to appear was enough to get the rest of the pack to follow.

I asked Skaggs about the Clinton stories. "Being a satirist is becoming far more difficult, as reality is now just another tabloid image. Now I have to fight with reality, and indeed reality played a big but coincidental role in this hoax. I was concerned that Dolly was going to turn out to be a hoax and was going to beat me to it." Has he seen the movie Wag the Dog? Of course.

So what can be learned from both affairs (if you'll pardon the word)? It helps to be skeptical, of course, but you need more than just a doubting personality to prove authenticity. Part of the challenge is that the tools and techniques are relatively unknown and infrequently used by the general public, much less journalists that find email at their limit of using advanced technology. For example, you could lookup the actual owner of the domain in the InterNIC (at rs.internic.net) to see if the site really is operating at the IP address and by the same owner as registered. You could put a network analyzer to trace the packets and so forth.

Proving authenticity actually covers two problems. First, can you trust what is on a supposedly legitimate web site as containing the truth? Given how easy it is to change a page, your view of the site may differ from moment to moment, and pining down the truth may be a very difficult proposition. An unauthorized employee could post a page by mistake (this is Microsoft's defense). And as we have seen from the news reports over the past week, one man's truth is another's falsehood, depending on your point of view.

The second problem is even more troubling. How can you be sure that someone's web site is truly authentic? Maybe during the night a group of imposters has diverted all traffic from the real site to their own, or put up their own pages on the authentic site, unbeknown to the site's webmaster? It has happened in the past, and probably will continue to happen.

A notable case in point: last fall when Yahoo began offering free email accounts to the general public, they made a critical mistake in setting this up so that "@yahoo.com" was the assigned domain for these accounts. Up until then, yahoo.com was used for the company's own employees, and these email identities switched to "yahoo-inc.com." It didn't take long before some enterprising sort claimed contest-winner@yahoo.com or some such tantalizing address, and had people sending their credit card numbers, thinking they were corresponding with a genuine Yahoo employee.

And things are going to get a lot worse in the short term, if a proposed change in the domain name structure happens. Up until now, we have the .com's and .org's as suffixes for domain names. The change would add a slew of additional suffixes to this, including things like .web and .store. So now in addition to strom.com someone else could have strom.web or strom.store: the opportunity to confound the unsuspecting user is rife for scam artists.

In the meantime, take a peep at Skagg's site and be skeptical.

Site keeping and self-promotions dep't

As usual, busy writing. Here are the latest things to be printed this week. A feature in Infoworld, entitled Building your online storefront, on choices to make in creating your store.

And in ComputerWorld, a review entitled NetWare 5.0 beta a sign of things to come.

David Strom
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