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On How I was Fooled on the Internet

by Bruno Van de Casteele

December 21, 2014

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Donate People sometimes ask me how I find the stories that I discuss in my blog posts. Sometimes my wife or friends send me stuff that I should discuss, but most of my ideas come from news aggregators. I have, for instance, several "Google Alerts" on various topics around archeology and history, including specific ones on topics that I've previously written about (for potential follow ups). Brian has also developed a daily extract of various sources for Skeptoid bloggers to use.

There is, of course, a disadvantage, in that the collected stories are not vetted. You can have stories from reputable sources followed by a completely bogus website in the same automated email. As always, as Brian recommends us bloggers (and indeed all skeptics), we need to verify and research. A linked story is just a trigger for ideas.

I almost forgot that dictum when the following story came in via a Google Alert: "Turkey: Archaeologists Discover Remains of Trojan Horse." My first reaction (as an absolute fan of everything archaeology) was this could be an interesting find. I started reading the article on the World News Daily Report, and was ready to believe it and started thinking about how I could write it into a blog post. I noticed that, in contrast to most pseudoscience stories, the researchers and their university were both listed by name. The website looked nice and professional (a bit too much publicity, but hey, that's how it goes nowadays), and didn't raise any red flags.

That was where I was mistaken, of course. I was almost Onion-ised (the term refers to the popular satirical and faux news website The Onion). What I should have done is check immediately the referenced researchers (they do not exist), and the original source (none mentioned). I'd like to think that I was only fooled for a couple of seconds, but it was actually a couple of minutes. I was lucky because I noticed a linked article on the same website, titled "Ireland: Archaeologists Discover Remains of Massacred Roman Legionnaires." I clicked on that one too, again a nicely written article, with a nice photo, researchers mentioned etc. But I had like a "wait a minute" moment. The Romans, according to mainstream historical research, never invaded Ireland. There are, of course, traces of commercial and cultural exchanges, and there is some debate if there was a small military expedition, but no firm military presence has been sufficiently proven.

My enthusiasm for historical matters helped me out here... but it failed me on the other article (so beware of considering oneself an "expert"). I started checking out the rest of the site. For instance, their "About us" is actually hilarious:

World News Daily Report is an American Jewish Zionist newspaper based in Tel Aviv and dedicated on covering biblical archeology news and other mysteries around the Globe.
Our News Team is composed of award winning christian, muslim and jewish journalists, retired Mossad agents and veterans of the Israeli Armed Forces.

We are based in Tel Aviv since 1988 where are published more then 200,000 copies of our Daily Report paper edition everyday.

Also, their disclaimer (a huge pseudo-legalese document) says:

Information contained in this World News Daily Report website is for information and entertainment purposes only. [...] WNDR assumes however all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website — even those based on real people — are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any persons, living, dead, or undead is purely a miracle.

So, yes, quite clear actually. I had to think about a previous post where I mentioned Poe 's law. World News Daily Report, where the articles are well written and there is no blatant display of humor (except in two places to which you have to click), can easily be mistaken for the real thing. For instance, several sites (mostly Greek) picked up on the Trojan Horse, even a more reputable site like Archeology News Network (although they later removed the article).

I will not repeat the point about "just joking" I made in my other article. What is more important here is skeptical humility. I was mistaken, even if only for a short time. To me, this again proves that the skeptical reflex is not innate, it takes effort to question yourself and what you read, it takes effort to click on the links on the site, and it takes effort to go look up the researchers on the Internet. Sadly, our position is not the easiest one, and this anecdote was a good lesson to remind me of that.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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