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World Wide Web of Conspiracy

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has become concerned about the spread of cultish conspiracy theories on the internet:

Sir Tim talked to the BBC in the week in which Cern, where he did his pioneering work on the web, turned on the Large Hadron Collider for the first time.

The use of the web to spread fears that flicking the switch on the LHC could create a Black Hole that could swallow up the Earth particularly concerned him, he said. In a similar vein was the spread of rumours that the MMR vaccine given to children in Britain was harmful.

Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.

“On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.”

This may be considered a departure from his views on blogs, which were misreported at the time:

People have, since it started, complained about the fact that there is junk on the web. And as a universal medium, of course, it is important that the web itself doesn’t try to decide what is publishable. The way quality works on the web is through links.

It works because reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don’t just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there. One’s chosen starting page, and a nurtured set of bookmarks, are the entrance points, then, to a selected subweb of information which one is generally inclined to trust and find valuable.

A great example of course is the blogging world. Blogs provide a gently evolving network of pointers of interest. As do FOAF files. I’ve always thought that FOAF could be extended to provide a trust infrastructure for (e..g.) spam filtering and OpenID-style single sign-on and its good to see things happening in that space.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, alas, my attempt to explain this was turned upside down into a “blogging is one of the biggest perils” message. Sigh. I think they took their lead from an unfortunate BBC article, which for some reason stressed concerns about the web rather than excitement, failure modes rather than opportunities.

I think that in some respects these two views can compatible. Sure, blogs live or die on the links they build with other blogs, and the readerships they develop. But some blog readers will trust paranoid conspiracy stories, and revisit sites those sites that propagate them. The way the internet facilitates communications between people with niche interests means there’s always enough critical mass to spread kooky, or even insane, conspiracy theories. Never underestimate the tenacity or stamina of the committed to keep pummelling out outlandish postings on discussion boards, blog comments, or newspaper comment forums. Such work can range from the concerns of garden-shed physicists who read a sci-fi book about a black hole once to the obsessive postings about 911 conspiracies common on the far left and far right – which has certainly passed way beyond the Lee’s 12 cultish disciples with personal problems.

So while, the majority of rational blogs and people do not entertain such nonsense, there is enough irrational people to sustain viable websites that attract further traffic of the gullible and credulous. It’s a self-confirming circle of madness.

Of course, it doesn’t help that some of this irrational fear-mongering and conspiracy driven nonsense is also pushed by the media on a fairly regular basis. Exactly how much reach did the ideas of kooky websites about the Large Hadron Collider have before the media decided to have a bit of fun too? I suspect not much.

(By the way, if you are considering starting a new cult or religion How to start a Cult is always worth a watch. Let us know how you get on. Extra points will be awarded for the most amusing dress codes and the celebrities you can get on board. How about contacting Noel Edmonds, he’s got some great ideas to get started.)

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