Entries Tagged "hoaxes"
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Interesting discussion of trust in this article on web hoaxes.
Kelly’s students, like all good con artists, built their stories out of small, compelling details to give them a veneer of veracity. Ultimately, though, they aimed to succeed less by assembling convincing stories than by exploiting the trust of their marks, inducing them to lower their guard. Most of us assess arguments, at least initially, by assessing those who make them. Kelly’s students built blogs with strong first-person voices, and hit back hard at skeptics. Those inclined to doubt the stories were forced to doubt their authors. They inserted articles into Wikipedia, trading on the credibility of that site. And they aimed at very specific communities: the “beer lovers of Baltimore” and Reddit.
That was where things went awry. If the beer lovers of Baltimore form a cohesive community, the class failed to reach it. And although most communities treat their members with gentle regard, Reddit prides itself on winnowing the wheat from the chaff. It relies on the collective judgment of its members, who click on arrows next to contributions, elevating insightful or interesting content, and demoting less worthy contributions. Even Mills says he was impressed by the way in which redditors “marshaled their collective bits of expert knowledge to arrive at a conclusion that was largely correct.” It’s tough to con Reddit.
If there’s a simple lesson in all of this, it’s that hoaxes tend to thrive in communities which exhibit high levels of trust. But on the Internet, where identities are malleable and uncertain, we all might be well advised to err on the side of skepticism.
The University of Pittsburgh has been the recipient of 50 bomb threats in the past two months (over 30 during the last week). Each time, the university evacuates the threatened building, searches it top to bottom—one of the threatened buildings is the 42-story Cathedral of Learning—finds nothing, and eventually resumes classes. This seems to be nothing more than a very effective denial-of-service attack.
Police have no leads. The threats started out as handwritten messages on bathroom walls, but are now being sent via e-mail and anonymous remailers. (Here is a blog and a
Google Docs spreadsheet documenting the individual threats.)
The University is implementing some pretty annoying security theater in response:
To enter secured buildings, we all will need to present a University of Pittsburgh ID card. It is important to understand that book bags, backpacks and packages will not be allowed. There will be single entrances to buildings so there will be longer waiting times to get into the buildings. In addition, non-University of Pittsburgh residents will not be allowed in the residence halls.
I can’t see how this will help, but what else can the University do? Their incentives are such that they’re stuck overreacting. If they ignore the threats and they’re wrong, people will be fired. If they overreact to the threats and they’re wrong, they’ll be forgiven. There’s no incentive to do an actual cost-benefit analysis of the security measures.
For the attacker, though, the cost-benefit payoff is enormous. E-mails are cheap, and the response they induce is very expensive.
If you have any information about the bomb threatener, contact the FBI. There’s a $50,000 reward waiting for you. For the university, paying that would be a bargain.
Supposedly, the latest terrorist tactic is to place fake bombs—suspicious looking bags, backpacks, boxes, and coolers—in public places in an effort to paralyze the city and probe our defenses. The article doesn’t say whether or not this has actually ever happened, only that the FBI is warning of the tactic.
Citing an FBI informational document, ABC News reports a so called “battle of suspicious bags” is being encouraged on a jihadist website.
I have no doubt that this may happen, but I’m sure these are not actual terrorists doing the planting. We’re so easy to terrorize that anyone can play; this is the equivalent of hacking in the real world. One solution is to continue to overreact, and spend even more money on these fake threats. The other is to refuse to be terrorized.
During a daring bank robbery in Sweden that involved a helicopter, the criminals disabled a police helicopter by placing a package with the word “bomb” near the helicopter hangar, thus engaging the full caution/evacuation procedure while they escaped.
I wrote about this exact sort of thing in Beyond Fear.
EDITED TO ADD (10/13): The attack was successfully carried off even though the Swedish police had been warned.
The carrot bombs had been placed around the city at the request of a local art gallery, as part of an open-air arts festival.
They had only been in place for an hour before police received their first call.
“We received a call … from a person who said they saw two real bombs placed outside the public library,” Ronny Hoerman from the Orebro police force, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
“It was hard to tell if they were real or not. We find this inappropriate,” he said.
Mr Blom described it as a harmless stunt.
“After all, it is just carrots with an alarm clock and nothing else… this is just a caricature of a bomb,” he said.
Back during the debate for HR 1, I was amazed at how easily conservatives were willing to accept and repeat lies about spending in the stimulus package, even after those provisions had been debunked as fabrications. The $30 million for the salt marsh mouse is a perfect example, and Kagro X documented well over a dozen congressmen repeating the lie.
To test the limits of this phenomenon, I started a parody Twitter account last Thursday, which I called “InTheStimulus“, where all the tweets took the format “InTheStimulus is $x million for ______”. I went through the followers of Republican Twitter feeds and in turn followed them, all the way up to the limit of 2000. From people following me back, I was able to get 500 followers in less than a day, and 1000 by Sunday morning.
You can read through all the retweets and responses by looking at the Twitter search for “InTheStimulus“. For the most part, my first couple days of posts were believable, but unsourced lies:
- $3 million for replacement tires for 1992-1995 Geo Metros.
- $750,000 for an underground tunnel connecting a middle school and high school in North Carolina.
- $4.7 million for a program supplying public television to K-8 classrooms.
- $2.3 million for a museum dedicated to the electric bass guitar.
The Twitter InTheStimulus site appears to have been taken down.
There a several things going on here. First is confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to believe things that reinforce their prior beliefs. But the second is the limited bandwidth of Twitter—140-character messages—that makes it very difficult to authenticate anything. Twitter is an ideal medium to inject fake facts into society for precisely this reason.
EDITED TO ADD (5/14): False Twitter rumors about Swine Flu.
This system is available in most NFL stadiums:
Fans still are urged to complain to an usher or call a security hotline in the stadium to report unruly behavior. But text-messaging lines—typically advertised on stadium scoreboards and on signs where fans gather—are aimed at allowing tipsters to surreptitiously alert security personnel via cellphone without getting involved with rowdies or missing part of a game.
As of this week, 29 of the NFL’s 32 teams had installed a text-message line or telephone hotline. Three clubs have neither: the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans. Ahlerich says he will “strongly urge” all clubs to have text lines in place for the 2009 season. A text line will be available at the Super Bowl for the first time when this season’s championship game is played at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 1.
“If there’s someone around you that’s just really ruining your day, now you don’t have to sit there in silence,” says Jeffrey Miller, the NFL’s director of strategic security. “You can do this. It’s very easy. It’s quick. And you get an immediate response.”
The article talks a lot about false alarms and prank calls, but—in general—this seems like a good use of technology.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.