Home > Case Studies, Competitive Intelligence, News stories, Online & Search Issues > Internet Explorer is for Dummies! Anatomy of a hoax.

Internet Explorer is for Dummies! Anatomy of a hoax.

Good business intelligence quickly identifies information that is real and what’s false – or should. It’s important that decision making is based on accurate, factual data – as otherwise bad decisions get made. So how do you tell whether something is real or fake?

Generally, the first rule is to check the source or sources.

  • Are they reputable and reliable?
  • Is the information in the story sensible and reasonable?
  • What’s the background to the story – does it fit in with what’s already known?

The problem is that even if information passes these tests it may still not be true. There are numerous examples of news items that sound true but that turn out to be false. One example is a BBC news story from 2002 quoting German researchers who claimed that natural blondes were likely to disappear within 200 years.   A similar story appeared in February 2006 in the UK’s Sunday Times. This article quoted a WHO study from 2002. In fact, there was no WHO study that stated this – it was false. The story of blonde extinction has been traced back over 150 years and periodically is reported – always with “scientific” references to imply validity.

The “Internet Explorer users have lower IQs” hoax

Often, the decision to accept a news item depends on whether or not it sounds true. If the story sounds true, especially if supported by apparent research then people think that it probably is – and so checks aren’t made. That is why a recent news story suggesting that users of Internet Explorer have lower IQs than those of other browsers was reported so widely. Internet Explorer is often set up as the default browser on Windows computers, and many users are more familiar with Explorer than other browsers. The suggestion that less technologically adept users (i.e. less intelligent users) would not know how to download or switch to a different browser made sense.

I first read the news story in The Register – an online technical newspaper covering web, computer and scientific news. Apart from The Register, the story appeared on CNN, the BBC, the Huffington Post, Forbes and many other news outlets globally (e.g. the UK’s  Daily Telegraph  and Daily Mail). Many of these have now either pulled the story completely, just reporting the hoax, or added an addendum to their story showing that it was a hoax. A few admit to being fooled – the Register, for example, explained why they believed it: because it sounded plausible.

The hoax succeeded however, not only because the story itself sounded plausible, but also because a lot of work had been put in to make it look real. The hoaxer had built a complete web-site to accompany the news item – including other research, implying that the research company concerned was bona fide, other product details, FAQs, and even other research reports, etc. The report itself was included as a PDF download.

In fact most pages had been copies from a genuine company, Central Test headquartered in Paris and with offices in the US, UK, Germany and India – as was highlighted in an article in CBR Online.

Red Flags that indicated the hoax

To its credit the technology magazine, Wired.com spotted several red flags, suggesting that the story was a hoax, stating that “If a headline sounds too good to be true, think twice.”

Wired commented that the other journalists hadn’t really looked at the data, pointing out that “journalists get press releases from small research companies all the time“. The problem is that it’s one thing getting a press release and another printing it without doing basic journalistic checks and follow-throughs. In this case,

  • the “research company” AptiQuant had no history of past studies – other than on its own web-site;
  • the company address didn’t exist;
  • the average reported IQ for Internet Explorer users (80) was so low as to put them in the bottom 15% of the population (while that for Opera users put them in the top 5%) – scarcely credible considering Internet Explorer’s market share.

After the hoax was exposed, the author, Tarandeep Gill, pointed out several red flags that he felt should have alerted journalists and admitted it had been a hoax i.e.

1. The domain was registered on July 14th 2011.
2. The test that was mentioned in the report, “Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (IV) test” is a copyrighted test and cannot be administered online.
3. The phone number listed on the report and the press release is the same listed on the press releases/whois of my other websites. A google search reveals this.
4. The address listed on the report does not exist.
5. All the material on my website was not original.
6. The website is made in WordPress. Come on now!
7. I am sure, my haphazardly put together report had more than one grammatical mistakes.
8. There is a link to our website AtCheap.com in the footer.

The rationale and the aftermath

Gill is a computer programmer based in Vancouver, Canada, working on a a comparison shopping website www.AtCheap.com. Gill became irritated at having to code for earlier versions of Internet Explorer – and especially IE 6.0 which is still used by a small percentage of web users. (As of July 2011, 9% of web-users use Internet Explorer versions 6.0 and 7.0 with a further 26% using version 8.0. Only 7% of web users have upgraded to the latest version of Internet Explorer – v9.0).

The problem with IE versions 6.0-8.0 is that they are not compatible with general web-standards making life difficult for web designers who have to code accordingly, and test sites on multiple versions of the same browser – all differing slightly. (As you can’t have all 4 versions of Internet Explorer IE6.0 – IE9.0 on the same computer this means operating 4 separate computers or having 4 hard-disk partitions – one for each version).

Gill decided to create something that would encourage IE users to upgrade or switch, and felt that a report that used scientific language and that looked authentic would do the trick.  He designed the web-site, copying material from Central Test, and then put out the press release – never expecting the story to spread so fast or far. He was sure he’d be found out much more quickly.

The problem was that after one or two reputable news sources published the story everybody else piled in. Later reports assumed that the early ones had verified the news story so nobody did any checks. The Register outlined the position in their mea culpa, highlighting how the story sounded sensible.

Many news outlets are busy flagellating themselves for falling for the hoax. But this seems odd when you consider that these news outlets run stories on equally ridiculous market studies on an almost day basis. What’s more, most Reg readers would argue that we all know Internet Explorer users have lower IQs than everyone else. So where’s the harm?

The facts are that AptiQuant doesn’t exist and its survey was a hoax. But facts and surveys are very different from the truth. “It’s official: IE users are dumb as a bag of hammers,” read our headline. “100,000 test subjects can’t be wrong.” The test subjects weren’t real. But they weren’t necessarily wrong either.

You may disagree. But we have no doubt that someone could easily survey 100,000 real internet users and somehow prove that we’re exactly right. And wrong.

The real issue is that nobody checked as the story seemed credible. Competitive Intelligence analysis cannot afford to be so lax. If nobody else bothers verifying a news story that turns out to be false, you have a chance to gain competitive advantage. In contrast those failing to check the story risk losing out. The same lessons that apply to journalists apply to competitive intelligence and just because a news story looks believable, is published in a reputable source and is supported by several other sources doesn’t make it true. The AptiQuant hoax story shows this.

Meanwhile the story rumbles on with threats of lawsuits against Tarandeep Gill by both Microsoft (for insulting Internet Explorer users) and more likely by Central Test. Neither company is willing to comment although Microsoft would like users to upgrade Internet Explorer to the latest version. In May 2010 Microsoft’s Australian operation even said using IE6 was like drinking nine-year-old milk. If Gill has managed to get some users to upgrade he’ll have helped the company. He should have also helped Central Test – as the relatively unknown company has received massive positive publicity as a result of the hoax. If they do sue, it shows a lack of a sense of humour (or a venal desire for money) – and will leave a sour taste as bad as from drinking that nine-year-old milk.

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  1. Michael Neugarten
    August 8, 2011 at 3:22 am

    As someone once remarked: “if it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably too true to be good.”

  2. August 9, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I still don’t understand why the “study” results were covered as a story on MSNBC’s technology blog. MSNBC is a Microsoft property (product?). I saw the story featured there, on the website, and verified that the link was genuine. I found it odd, but difficult to continue having any doubt. I still haven’t seen that oddity addressed. I’ll try to find the URL, see if it is still there on the site, and report back with a follow-up comment.

    I’m enjoying your blog. Found the Zanran search engine here, now this clever post. Thank you!

    • August 9, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Thank you for your comments. The MSNBC link is at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43947242.

      In fact MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft – so is strictly speaking not a Microsoft property but a shared property. MSNBC’s AboutUs pages describes the site as combining “NBC News’ trusted resources and Microsoft’s advanced technologies to bring consumers a one-of-a-kind online news experience.” I guess that means that Microsoft has no editorial role in what gets published / broadcast and so anti-Microsft news will also appear.

      • August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm

        Well, fraudulent research studies about Microsoft’s flagship internet product is certainly a “one-of-a-kind online news experience” for consumers! Thanks for getting the link. Nice to see that it remains extant.

        I understand your point, but still note that it is sloppy on the part of MSNBC to publish fraudulent findings about Microsoft products and users. The editorial freedom to publish anti-Microsoft news of a reasonably truthful nature is another matter entirely. There is ample material along those lines! It shouldn’t be necessary to do this sort of story. There is No shortage at ALL of unfavorable Microsoft news stories, in fact!

        Actually, I enjoyed your reply. The last sentence was amusing. Thank you for taking the trouble to clarify this matter for me.

  3. August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I’d be more worried if a reputable news source failed to publish items, even if they were detrimental to the owner. Especially if they are a joint-venture with a major news channel (i.e. NBC). If they are selective in one area, can you trust them to be objective in another? When the IE story broke, people didn’t realise it was a hoax – so it was valid news. Also Microsoft themselves want people to upgrade to IE 9.0 – and most of the negative info was on the earlier versions.

    In the case of the Rupert Murdoch owned London Times, there have been lots of anti-Rupert Murdoch / News International news items reporting the recent UK hacking scandals. Had they ignored the scandal or sought to justify it, their objectivity as a credible news source would have gone out the window. (I suspect that they are rather pleased that the even more recent London Looting (aka Riots) has knocked these stories off the front page (and pages 2-10).

    I like the London Times – although they have published lots of negative stories against their owners, they’ve also been instrumental in showing that they weren’t alone and that other newspapers also hacked into mobile phones, bribed the police, etc. (One of which was the paper that at the time was edited by Piers Morgan who is now a CNN anchor). They have a vested interest in doing this – unlike their competitors who would love to see them go down. (The News of the World that was killed off was the best selling UK newspaper). It means you actually get greater balance in the news.

  4. Guy Niri
    August 21, 2011 at 3:59 am

    The power of written words is overwhelming and makes readers think it’s true, and when it comes from professionals like CI experts, the organization usually take it for granted. Dealing with intelligence, we must always, verify the source and the content before using it in our endless puzzle…

  5. August 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm

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  6. August 23, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I really enjoy looking at on this web site , it has wonderful blog posts. “The great secret of power is never to will to do more than you can accomplish.” by Henrik Ibsen.

  7. August 25, 2011 at 12:01 am

    The only way I know is to unsubscribe and then resubscribe.

    Hope that this helps.

    Rgds

    Submitted on 2011/08/20 at 8:01 pm
    When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

    • September 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      Hi Arthur!
      Am I unintentionally spamming you from my blog? I hope not.

      WordPress can be something of an affliction. I am delighted to have you as a subscriber in the GooglePlex, and do not want to lose you. I was unsure if your post above was directed to me or someone else. If I have misunderstood, do not feel obligated to clarify, as I think I understand better upon closer reading.

      By the way, you seem to have a largi-sh number of spam entries here: The quotation from Henrik Ibsen is nice. However, the links to “video marketing uncut”, “Aim Bot Combat Arms” and “True Religion (receive most elegant model outfits by wholesalers” are probably not what you had in mind. But I could be wrong, and would be glad to have you as a subscriber even if these folks are your devoted followers.

      Best regards as always!
      Ellie

  8. August 31, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Excellent ideas

  9. Arthur Weiss
    September 4, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Hi Ellie

    No – you’re not spamming me. The post above was directed at somebody else who wanted to stop notifications for every comment. I made it public in case others had the same issue.

    As for the spam posts – I’d read the content and didn’t check the source. I recently went through the spam I’d received – over 100. Most were obvious from the message content and got deleted. Anything that looked real got added in and I guess these slipped through. (I HATE spammers. Especially when the main aim is to get links to their dodgy deals. It’s actually a clever technique to post something that looks legit – but have your avatar link to a spam site).

    Thanks for pointing out (and your message is going to look odd when they get deleted, although it may act as a warning 😉 )

    Rgds
    Arthur

  10. September 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    RSS needs to be actioned from the main WordPress site rather than the http://www.find-it-out.co.uk sites that only point to the WordPress site at https://awareci.wordpress.com. This SHOULD work 😉

  11. September 6, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Great piece of facts that you’ve obtained on this web site publish. Hope I will get some much more of the stuff in your weblog. I will appear again.

  1. August 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm

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