Side-effect of the “instant information” world: frequency trumps accuracy

In a coincidental reinforcement of a point we raised recently in a different context about the difficulty of establishing the credibility of information found on the Internet, a reliance on unsubstantiated claims and poorly verified (or unverified) information seems to be at the heart of some of the recent criticisms of the intelligence communities failure to “connect the dots” and prevent the would-be Christmas Day airline bomber from boarding the flight from Amsterdam to the U.S. In response to a detailed listing of “articulable facts” about the bombing attempt proposed by Bruce McQuain to refute testimony before Congress by FBI Terrorist Screening Center Director Timothy Healy that there was insufficient factual information to provide “reasonable suspicion” about the underwear bomber, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones offers a point-by-point response backed up by news reports and other evidence. (The point-counterpoint came to our attention via security expert Bruce Schneier.) Perhaps the most interesting of the points incorrectly asserted by McQuain (and many many others) is the claim that Abdulmutallab was traveling on a one-way ticket (which therefore should have served as a red flag). This claim, first asserted on the day of the attack and widely repeated by just about every reputable news source covering the story, turns out not to be true, though despite corrections made by the New York Times, MSNBC, and others, the false claim continues to appear in published reports.

So the message here is simple: when you read a claim, you have to look for the evidence, and if there isn’t any, it’s a mistake to rely on the information as factual, no matter how logical it sounds or how reputable the source is considered to be. In theory this should be easier to avoid for those posting information online, because adding hyperlinks to reference sources is a simple matter. The more information gets passed around, however, the more likely it is to lose the traceability to sources that helps determine its validity. For a recent example we need look no further than Bruce Schneier once again. In a recent essay on the Google-China hacking incident Schneier refers to reports that China used long-existing “back doors installed to facilitate government eavesdropping” (the “government” in this statement is the American one, not Chinese), and the article embeds links to more than one published story as well as some of his own previous writing to provide evidence for the assertion. When picked up the piece and ran it, none of the supporting evidence (or more specifically, links to it) was included with the story. So a reader on would see a strong but unsubstantiated assertion that the attacks on Google were actually facilitated by a legally-required back channel maintained by Google to allow access by law enforcement authorities. The existence of and exploitation of the “internal intercept” access back-channel is attributed by Macworld only to an anonymous “source familiar with the situation” — a familiar phrase in the press, but one not particularly useful in assessing the credibility of a claim.