THE INTERNET:  A Wealth of Information . . . and Misinformation
 
At the office, in a restaurant, at a veterinary clinic, at the soccer field, or around the stables, we often hear people starting sentences with "I read on the Internet that . . . "  Without a doubt, the internet is a very powerful voice which has become a vital part of our daily lives.

With the development of the Internet, we have been given access to vast amounts of information on every imaginable topic.  We can enter universities' data bases, peruse governmental agencies' documents and records, track the latest developments on the stock market, or receive an update on our favorite sporting event.

But, this tool of advanced information gathering has also made it easy for inaccurate or completely false information to be passed along, virtually unchallenged.

In essence, the Internet has turned everyone into a member of the media.  Whether it is through a web page, e-mail, or message board postings, everyone has been transformed, to some extent, into a provider of news and information.  However, as newly appointed "reporters", we are not held up to the same standards and accountability as the actual media.  Taking responsibility for the accuracy of information that we share with other people, expecially strangers, is not something we are used to doing.  We have to be careful in drawing conclusions from the hearsay information available on the Internet.

While freedom of speech is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, the Internet makes it easier than ever to perpetrate false information, unfounded rumors and other hoaxes.

Many of these untruths remain before the public for a long time due to the nature of the Internet.  Some of this information is just bothersome to the parties involved, while at other times it results in significant damage.

A current hoax that has been set loose via the Internet pertains to legislation pending before the U.S. Congress, and backed by the U.S. Postal Service, that would institute a five-cent postage charge on e-mails.  Internet experts report that this particular hoax started in April 1999, perhaps on April Fools Day, and spread like wildfire as it appeared on message boards, was discussed in chat rooms and e-mailed to millions of people.

Further, it has not been stopped or completely discredited, and the story continues to be retold with more elaboration.

A recent version of this e-mail postage hoax claims a Republican congressman named "Schnell" is behind the legislation, which is reported as Bill 602P.  The truth is there is no Congressman Schnell, and no Bill 602P exists.

Yet this story continues to be spread unabated, and members of Congress have been bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from their constituents who want the legislation defeated.  This rumor has created such havoc that many members of Congress have statements on their web sites stating that no such legislation exists, and directs them to the U.S. Postal Service website that contains a statement denying the plan.

An Internet polling group recently found that 95% of the users polled said they had received an e-mail on the five-cent e-mail postage issue, and more than 50% reported that they had received an e-mail on this topic three or more times.

While the e-mail postage hoax has been a major nuisance for the U.S. Government, there have been other rumors perpetuated on the Internet that have had extremely negative effects on companies.

A well-known consumer products company has been battling rumors for quite some time, which claim the company is involved in witchcraft and the occult.  It has been alleged that their trademark is a satanic or witchcraft symbol.

With the aid of the Internet, these rumors have been accelerated, and the story is often repeated with new elements.  A few years ago, people on Internet forums were reporting that the president of this company was on Oprah Winfrey's show, where he had said that he was a Satanist and that a large amount of the company's profits fund the Church of Satan.  Variations of this story started popping up on the Internet with the company's president making this claim on Phil Donahue, Jenny Jones and Sally Jesse Raphael.

The truth of the matter is that the president of the company never appeared on any of these shows, and neither he nor the company has any ties to witchcraft or the Church of Satan.  However, the websites for Oprah, Sally Jesse Raphael and Jenny Jones still receive numerous inquiries about the matter.

Though somewhat of a consolation, the company was able to track down several sources of these rumors.  They were attributed to several distributors of a competitor's product, and the company has filed a number of lawsuits against these individuals.  Yet the rumors keep resurfacing on the Internet from time to time.  They rarely go away.

Everyone's online mailbox gets filled with these stories, rumors and hoaxes, and we pass them along to our friends and acquaintances without much forethought.  We read statements on message boards and in chat rooms that we assume are true, and pass that information, or misinformation, on to others.

The proliferation of erroneous and misleading information on the Internet touches every segment of our society.  Even within the equine world, there are rumors and falsehoods spread about breeding, dewormers, feeds, vaccines, medications and home remedies, as well as other horse-related matters.

For instance, a popular equine dewormer introduced nearly five years ago has been the target of numerous and unsubstantiated accounts on the Internet relating to severe adverse reactions to the product.  The stories are not only inaccurate, but are more exaggerated  as they continue to be retold.  Additionally, many of these rumors are not as widespread as they may seem.  A closer look reveals that the messages are from the same sender or group time and time again.

Yet, when the facts are examined, the product in question has an exemplary safety record.  The number of reactions reported per one million doses of the product is miniscule, and translates into the product being 99.9 percent safe when administered correctly.

Horse owners are passionate about their animals, particularly about their well-being.  At times, emotions can blur a person's viewpoint, and the facts may inadvertently get lost.  While sharing information with other horse owners through the Internet may be good, there are few constraints on web users to ensure the accuracy of their allegations or their drawing of correct conclusions.

People are entitled to their opinions, and the Internet has become their latest forum.  And, somehow, by virtue of being on the Internet, these comments receive a form of validation.

The Internet is one of the most beneficial, technological advances of our times.  Yet, we must be cautious when searching for advice--especially on health issues for our families, our animals and ourselves.

Our challenge, when using the Internet as a resource, is to separate the truth from the fiction, and to seek out the appropriate, reputable authorities.  Valuable information, from credible sources, is available at our fingertips.  While the Internet may be entertaining to read, it is best to consult with professionals . . . doctors, veterinarians, etc. . . . when it comes to matters of well being for our animals and ourselves.

Important decisions should be based on the facts, not groundless information in e-mails or unsubstantiated postings on a message board.


Reprinted from the "Pintabian Ink Spot, Vol. 8, No. 1".  Special thanks to Mark Kenville for his informative article.  Mark is a former Associated Press Writer, an author, a public relations professional and a horse enthusiast.

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