Blog Post 6: Internet Source Reliability

For every reliable Routers source on the internet, there are ten Rainbow Conspiracy Ladies. People who have dial-up, but maybe not a high school degree – people who just plain don’t know what they’re talking about.

What’s nice about Rainbow Conspiracy Lady is that she’s laughable. She’s one clueless woman with a camera, a backyard and a sprinkler who accidentally exposed her ignorance to the world – and we get to sit back and giggle, knowing that only people as hopeless as she is will actually get concerned about ‘whatever’s in our water’.

If you like that sort of thing, also try out the Dihydrogen Monoxide awareness website, which almost looks credible if you squint – again, this site is pretty funny because it’s not actually out to get anyone. It’s kind of Stephen Colbert-styled in its use of verbal irony:
“Unfortunately, some have seen fit to fill many thousands of web pages with purposely slanted propaganda meant more to titillate and sensationalize than to inform. The following “information” about Dihydrogen Monoxide is what you’ll commonly find on the Internet. The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division does not endorse the use of such scare tactics, particularly when telling people about the invisible killer, Dihydrogen Monoxide.”

Unfortunately for us, not all incorrect information is clueless or meant as a joke. There is a huge profit to be had from misinformation, and there are enough niches in the science world that the average person doesn’t understand that the right person with the right credentials can make a mint off of lying.

The first thing that pops up in google for Andrew Wakefield is "andrew wakefield fraud". Check it out.

Enter Andrew Wakefield, one of the most infamous names in the medical community. Wakefield is a UK doctor – that is, he was a doctor, until very recently – who made a living off of scaring mothers and expecting mothers about infant vaccines. While he got book deal profits and benefited from law suits against hospitals and governments, Great Britain suffered the consequences of families that were wrongly informed and not properly treating their newborns. Wakefield had claimed that the MMR vaccine (among others) could cause autism and other serious health risks in otherwise healthy children. Despite countries all over the world stating that the evidence for this was flawed at best, people love a conspiracy. Wakefield continued claiming that more papers would be published soon with more solid links between the thimerosal in vaccines and autism. The internet was swarmed with misinformation and online communities for expecting moms began supporting each other in talking to their doctors about skipping early-childhood vaccinations that would have saved their children from measles and worse. The above link to the Irish measles epidemic is from 2001, but that doesn’t mean this is old news. There are still plenty of families that plan on having children and not getting them their shots for this exact reason.

And why would Wakefield do this? For the money. Wakefield got over £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. And if you’re hoping that maybe those lawyers were also doctors, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

This year CNN reported on even further evidence disproving the autism/vaccination connection, but sadly the damage has already been done. By definition a conspiracy must be denied by those in charge. The misinformation is still being perpetuated by the under-informed, the wrongly-informed, and the just plain scared. And the worst part is that it’s the newborns that suffer the consequences. I hope Wakefield spent all that money on something really great.

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Blog Post 3: Social Networking

(XKCD‘s most recent comic is relevant to our interests)

As of today, if you do a Google search for ‘facebook scandal’, you will get 14,000,000 results. While I’m sure that some of those stories refer to individual instances (which we’ll talk more about later), a great number of those have to do with huge TOS changes and infringements that have been going on as far back as early 2008. The biggest scandals aren’t between individual parties on Facebook so much as between Facebook and its users as a whole. People are upset about everything, but perhaps most reasonably about assumed privacy. The idea that manually opting out of having our information sold to private parties — and that taking care to make certain information, posts, pictures, and other media private or restricted only to a select few is actually meaningless if the interested party is willing to pay cash up front — seems dishonest if not actually illegal. It doesn’t help that Zuckerman has been quoted saying some less than advisable things about the intelligence of people willing to trust him with their personal info. This is driving several users to make statements by removing their content completely.

Quit Facebook Day is happening on May 31, 2010. The specially dedicated website offers reasons why people are quitting, options for interested party, and a counter in the right column that (as of this post) numbers at 12526. That’s almost 13,000 people.

Therein lies the problem with this whole debacle. To Facebook, its advertisers, and its investors? 13k users is a drop in the bucket. Hell, if that number reaches 30k by the end of the month it still wouldn’t have anybody changing policies that are clearly so profitable. According to OpenScandal (linked above), here’s their financial breakdown of 2009:

# $125 million from brand ads
# $150 million from Facebook’s ad deal with Microsoft
# $75 million from virtual goods
# $200 million from self-service ads

Facebook is rolling in money. Rolling. In it. The online journaling site Livejournal was recently outed for allowing pop-up ads with embedded adware that they almost definitely knew about, and did not remove once they were explicitly informed. And why would they? As a business model, most members of the site, whether they pay for extra features or simply ‘pay’ by seeing the ads at the tops of their screens, don’t understand what they’re giving up… or don’t care enough to switch to a less popular service that has more honest policies. Until or unless the customers unite more effectively and use their buying/ad-looking power to strong-arm these companies to look at something other than profit, we’re going to see these headlines over and over again.

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