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The Net as propaganda machine

October 14, 1998
Web posted at: 12:15 PM EDT

by Mark Gibbs, Network World Fusion columnist


(IDG) -- "Some lies are so well disguised to resemble truth, that we should be poor judges of the truth not to believe them." - Anonymous

Did you recently get an e-mail message containing a clever poem that starts:

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!

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

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

Mr. 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). Mr. Perkins is not pleased about this. His main complaint was that it was picked up by "serious" newspapers and reprinted without attribution or, most importantly, payment!

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

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 myths 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 that the on-line joke culture is free-wheeling and independent - but can we be sure? What if all of the jokes about the president's indiscretions are being generated and circulated by his enemies? The simple fact of our attention being diverted by what appears to be humor while our opinions are being molded 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 more manipulated? My money is on more manipulated, and if you look at advertising and politics, I'd say history is on my side.

Propaganda to or (800) 622-1108, Ext. 7504.

Oh, and by way of an experiment - you are all well-informed members of the Digerati, what's your take on Zippergate?

Let's see how many of you are for or against impeachment: If you think Mr. Clinton should be ousted, send e-mail to, if against, send to We'll publish the results in three weeks.

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