(This is a reblog from Thinking at the Interface.)
Linda Beyerstein at Majikthise (and via Alternet) and Katherine Zeleski at The Huffington Post are bringing attention to a website that they are referring to as a “hoax” site, but that I would argue is a “cloaked” site. And, I would argue that this is one of the prime examples of why the term “hoax” is inadequate and less accurate than “cloaked.” Let me explain the story in question and then make I’ll make my case for the term “cloaked.” Here’s the story, first reported by Zeleski (Oct.26):
At first look, “Separatists Claim Responsibility For California Wildfires” appears to be like any other story on CNN.com. The article claims that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger confirmed a radical Hispanic organization has taken responsibility for the fires that raged through southern California this week. The article even says there’s photographic proof “of individuals holding Molotov cocktails, then throwing them into dry brush.”
After the initial shock of the report, it then becomes obvious that it’s a hoax. To start with, the site’s URL is http://www.cnnheadlienews.com (note the headlie instead of headline). CNN’s url is cnn.com and the url for its sister network, Headline News, is http://www.cnn.com/HLN/.
Anti-immigrant websites picked up on the story and ran it as fact (follow this url). Before realizing it was a hoax, the author of the site “Americanandproud” declared, “I am going to wait until all the facts are in, but it appears the first major shot of the next Mexican/American war has just been fired.”
A domain name search for “cnnheadlienews” shows the site is registered to a company with a Nashville, Tennessee address called Bleachboy Heavy Manufacturing Concern. The website associated with Bleachboy, BBoy.net, is a homepage that cycles through four different logos. There’s no other information on the site except for a warning on sweatshop products, a note that says “thank you for the traffic,” and the ever-banal phrase, “spring is in the air.”
While this story, like Beyerstein’s, is useful for tipping off the unsuspecting to the disguised URL and the untruth of the story there, by calling it a “hoax” it relegates it to the universe of “fake news” and “truthiness” created by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and misses the hidden political agenda of such a site. As I’ve defined it, a cloaked website is:
“published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda.”
Although it’s not clear who the owner of “Bleachboy” and the fake “cnn” site, by choosing to target MECHA, a Hispanic group, I would argue that the creators of the site had a hidden white supremacist agenda. Using the term “hoax” doesn’t adequately describe this kind of deception, and therefore I think “cloaked” is a better, more accurate term.
These kinds of sites are even more disturbing when you look at them in light of some of the cognitive research on how people remember (or misremember) facts. Researchers found that false claims, if repeated, are remembered as true. (While there is some difference in this by age, the overall pattern seems to hold up.) This has tremendous implications for studying cloaked sites such as this one that publish false claims that are then repeated through the reverb chamber that is the blogosphere.