'Net's potential as a propaganda machine

"Some lies are so well disguised to resemble truth that we should be poor judges of the truth not to believe them."

- Anon

Have you recently received an e-mail message containing a clever poem that begins:

I am Starr. Starr I are.

I'm a brilliant barri-star.

I'm here to ask, as you'll soon see,

Did you grope Miss Lew-in-sky?

This amusing sonnet did the rounds of the Internet in next to no time -- I received at least six copies in one day!

What was particularly interesting was the lack of attribution. I didn't really think much of this until I heard the Sept. 23 broadcast of the radio program "Fresh Air" on my local National Public Radio station.

On that particular show was an interview with Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow, the cartoonist best known for his comic strip "This Modern World".

Perkins stated he is the author of this ode to Fornigate that shot around the Internet (in slightly altered form from what he presented in one of his comic strips). Perkins is not pleased about this. His main complaint was that it was picked up by "serious" newspapers and reprinted without attribution or, more importantly, without payment.

Perkins also points out that the journalists who acquired this content made no effort to find out who the author might be.

This highlights one of the curious attributes of the Internet. Stuff that gets passed around is assumed to be true simply because it is being circulated. I confess, I've been taken in by a few of these: virus scares, urban legends and the like.

And along with the bogus content, we are being increasingly bombarded by real, honest-to-the-gods news.

Along with this deluge comes another problem: we have to pay attention if we want to gain anything from the torrent. But attention is the most valuable commodity in the Information Economy simply because it is the most crucial limiting factor.

So our attention gets stretched thinner and thinner - we scan more than read and we really do "browse".

This susceptibility is based on our gullibility. For example, we assume the online joke culture is freewheeling and independent - but can we be sure? What if all the jokes about the President's indiscretions are being generated and circulated by his enemies? The simple fact that our attention is being diverted by what appears to be humour while our opinions are being moulded is not to be taken lightly.

Mark my words, the Internet will become the most important propaganda machine in the world. On the Internet the techniques of spin-doctoring -- misinformation, misdirection and misrepresentation -- will become increasingly commonplace and more subtle than ever.

But will we become a more cynical society because of it -- or a more manipulated one? My money is on more manipulated, and if you look at advertising and politics, I'd say history is on my side.

(Propaganda to nwcolumn@gibbs.com)

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