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All About Trust – Concluding Post for Travelogue 2

Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

Trust leaves us vulnerable, but without it there is no love, no joy, no sharing and no Web 2.0. While we wait for the dust to settle down in this new public sphere, are we guilty of blind trust? How do we decipher the truth from lies?

“Today, it only takes a couple of searches and three or four clicks to verify most information,” I said, asking “Do we verify the facts we read online?”. “We are exposed to much much much more info from much much much more sources and the information’s sources today are much much much less explicit. While it’s easy to fact check, it’s impossible to do it on a regular basis,” Mushon argued. And I agreed. “I want to focus not on facts that can be verified, but those that should be verified.”

From Blind Trust to Reasonable Suspicion

Here’s what happened in a countdown format:

#4 Google Ads

  • Free webspace from weebly.com = 5 minutes
  • Free script from EmailMeForm.com = 10 minutes
  • Amateur graphic design to create a fake ‘Free 99$ McDonalds Coupons’ website = 2 hours

[The website, as you can see, had a large disclaimer that said ridiculously honestly that users would not get a coupon after they submit their information]

  • - Creating an ad campaign on Google Ads = 2 days and $20

[The website was approved although it violated Google's policy guidelines]

  • - Watching 21 people at $0.26 per click average send identifiable information to a website that declares to be a scam = PRICELESS

Click to see the website

The Google Ads Campaign

User information mailed to me

[Disclaimer: The sample image on the left has been blurred. All information has been deleted, mostly without looking. Website will be taken down soon.]


Of the 43 users Google claims to have sent me, 21 gave away personally identifiable information for a reward without reading the loud and clear disclaimer that said they will not get anything at all. Most of us do not read the privacy policies of websites we deal with because we do not expect any violations – but that is fine print and contains legal jargon. This was a loud and clear disclaimer right below the sign up form.

#3 Facebook

  • Free webspace from Google Sites = 5 minutes
  • A webpage that claims bristles in Chinese toothbrushes imported in Pakistan are made of pig hair and therefore ‘Haraam’ = 4 hours

[A very visible footnote clearly solicits feedback and says the information is incorrect and for an academic experiment]

  • Sharing the link on Facebook through a wall post and creating a fan page = 1 hour
  • A facebook ad campaign to promote the fan page for one night = 2 hours and $10
  • 106 people, including my friends, become fans of a ‘Fatwa’ without reading it = PRICELESS

Click to see Facebook Fanpage that links to website

194 clicks from Facebook ads - up to 50% became fans

Facebook fans terrorized


Of the 106 people that became fans of the website and about 40 comments I read altogether on facebook, not a single one seemed to have read the whole thing. Both those who agreed and those who disagreed did so not based on the verifiability of the facts but on the basis of how the information fit into their worldview and perspective. Following are some examples:

#2 Twitter

Every single twitter user I talked to refused to tell a new lie or retell an existing lie saying they could not afford to lose their audience’s trust. But I did not give up until this morning, when I proposed to a fellow journalist she could tweet MY retelling of an existing lie.

Thanks to Nadine, I knew I where to go to find some amazing hoaxes: the Yes Men. I wrote a brief summary one of their hoax stories on a web page with the postscript clearly stating it was a hoax.

Of her few hundred followers, one chose to re-tweet. Her comment shows that as with the facebook users, she did not read the story but believed in it because it was quite similar to something that she has seen in her society and fits into her way of looking at the world.

#1 Blogs

  • Convincing popular or somewhat popular bloggers to tell a lie = 2 weeks
  • Total bloggers who agreed = Zero
  • A whole community refusing to deliberately pass on incorrect information because they care about the people who trust them: PRICELESS


General Conclusions:

  • Truth and lies as irrelevant terms – the real criterion is verifiability. Information should be verified to having been come from a source that is reliable.
  • For web users who consume information, verifiability is not important. What is important is that the information makes their life meaningful in some way or conforms to their hopes (free $99 McDonalds coupons) and fears (importing toothbrushes from people of a different religion)
  • For users who produce or share, reliability is of utmost importance. They will not willfully pass on unverifiable information (except if it is meaningful to them and their followers? Is that how what I have been calling ‘lies’ are spread on the internet?)

If you’re nobody you can lie as much as you want, who cares… If you’re somebody lying will impact your social position. This is the ABC of reputation systems. Otherwise … the social web would have not been half as important as it is.

- Mushon Zer-Aviv

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  1. mushon 08:43, Feb 16th, 10

    It is remarkable how the results of your experiment (as unscientific as they might be) reinforce the importance of online reputation systems – the less the info is attached to the source, the more successful the manipulation is. You have also tapped on the herd mentality there – propogating lies in an echo chamber unpenetratable even though the information is right there. Yes, The Yes Men have made a career out of this, starting quite similarly with spoof websites. They call it “Identity Correction” rather than “Identity Theft” – telling lies to expose the truth.
    Great job, I was skeptical at first but I think your travelogue proved itself with this conclusion. (yet another reference to the themes discussed in The Trap)

  2. ElzbthMllr 09:24, Feb 16th, 10

    Very interesting conclusion. I’ve seen lies propogated on Twitter unknowingly and I think there’s something to be gained from that. Yes no one may have volunteered to knowingly tell a lie to their followers, but sometimes people will post unverified information because they get it from someone in their network so they automatically think is secure. People won’t necessarily take the time to verify it themselves, but end up doing damage without intending to. Twitter has seen this happen several times, several months ago when reports about premium subscription accounts were to be implented (they weren’t), and the fake flights to Haiti for doctors.

  3. nadine 11:17, Feb 16th, 10

    Harris, this is the best post ever!!! I had to laugh so much!! The comments on your facebook-page are so serious, I can’t believe how all these people believed such an incredible story. Although it shows how easy we can be manipulated when emotions get involved- in the essence you talk about propaganda. It makes me think of what Goebbels said: the bigger the lie, the better…

  4. Jimena 11:35, Feb 16th, 10

    Harris, your post is excellent! super enjoyable.
    I agree that the real issue is not truth/lie but the reliability of the source. I consider our generation to be perched in the middle of both worlds- we grew up watching our parents physically read the papers but probably most of us do it online now. I think that helps us in the distinction between reliable and nonreliable sources, but I believe that kids today have a harder time learning to discern among the thousands of options within the huge source information that is the web.

    That gets even trickier when we’re talking about less verifiable data or information (not statistics, news facts or money) but more in the sense of reputation and human activity. The boundaries between anonymity and authorship are constantly shifting in the social web– the ‘reliable source’ is even more elusive. I’m thinking of the relative anonymity that we talked about last class– who is a reliable source when vicious rumors or gossip is spread? Clearly, there are groups that are more vulnerable to this, but we’re all subject to that.

    ps. did you catch last week’s rumor about Romania sending aid to Tahiti insted of Haiti? I’m still trying to track it but it was never reported by AP or other news agency. Still, it made the main news channel in Mexico… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V89Nyb5kZyA&feature=player_embedded

  5. Ryan 13:18, Feb 16th, 10

    Great job – Mushon is right and I think that’s why these different environments like Google Ads, Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs are environments that are quite susceptible to false information or people not verifying things.

    Obviously, these people’s reputations on facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. are much different than someone who is a journalist that works for a news agency who has much more to lose than a regular joe-schmoe. Still, the information that people disseminate to others depends upon the person’s audience and sphere of influence. Someone’s reputation and integrity appear to be important whether they are someone on twitter or a journalist of the NYTimes. However, that’s not to say that people can and will compromise the truth for a lie.

    “Truth be Told” and rumors abound – finding out how someone like G.W. Bush was able to get away with a huge lie like WMDs in Iraq would be equally interesting to see why it wasn’t checked more thoroughly at the door.

    Truth stands the test of time; lies are soon exposed – Proverbs 12:19