Monday, September 1, 2014

Bullshit Artistry: Blurring the lines between fiction and reality

A common problem in this age of "instant information" is that a lot of misinformation exists, and misinformation spreads like wildfire. It is possible for people to research before posting something, but few of us do. 

Someone sent me a link to a page from a news article about a kid named Paul Horner who engaged in something called "SWATTING" (calling in a fake threat of violence to get a SWAT team sent to someone's home) and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. The only problem is the source of the story is a site called the National Report, a satirical news site. In other words, this story is faker than Dolly Parton's bosom. 

There is indeed such a thing as "Swatting," and people have indeed fell victim to this prank. However, the National Report site is not a real news site. It even utilizes this mythical "Paul Horner" as a running gag; in addition to being featured in a number of stories in the NR (HERE as a Koran burning chef and HERE as a fundamentalist preacher who stones a woman to death), Paul Horner is listed as a "Staff Writer." The NR is just one of a number of satirical/ fake news websites out there (along with fake personalities like Georgia 15th District Rep. Steve Smith.)

This phenomenon isn't new-- remember the Weekly World News? But the fake sites are doing a better job at fooling people. If you've fallen for it, don't feel bad -- fake news led people to make harassing and threatening calls to a school, and even journalists from reputable news outlets have fallen for fake news. I can understand how people can fall for this stuff. We have other things to do than spend all day verifying news stories online. As social justice activists, we are sensitive to topics such as police abuse, so a story of a teen getting a 25-year sentence for a prank, even a potentially dangerous prank, catches our eye. Thus, 99% of us rely on the media as a primary source of info.

A lot of people try to pass off fake news as real, even if they are not writing satire. In fact, people have been far too willing to accept any myth about Registered Citizens, even claims of a massive underground ring of pedophilic satanists. A prime example of this mindset is a story that made the rounds in the media two years ago. A press release from Utica College in NY state proclaimed they conducted a study which concluded "1 in 6 sex offenders hide attempt to avoid monitoring" by use of various deceptive practices. Of course, the media was quick to pick up and run with the story. One headline reads "Some sex offenders turn to identity theft to avoid registration." Another claims, "Study: One in six sex offenders uses Internet to live undetected." A third outlet's headline reads "New study shows 1 out of 6 sex offenders 'manipulate' their identities." The entire basis for the article was the press release that may have been written by someone at The Onion.

There were a number of issues with the study. First, this was a preliminary study, so the study had not been subject to peer review. Second, the author of the study is not in the field of sex offender criminology, but the executive director of Utica College’s Center for Identity Management and Information Protection (CIMIP). In other words, he studies identity theft and economic crime (which may explain at least one of the aforementioned headlines). Third, the study had some interesting criteria for deciding who was manipulating registry info. Preliminary findings indicated that several of the most frequent identity manipulation methods utilized by sex offenders to avoid detection were:

  1. Using multiple aliases.
  2. Using various identifying information such as SS#s or date of birth.
  3. Stealing identifying information from family members.
  4. Manipulating either their own names, or changed name through marriage.
  5. Using the address of family members or friends.
  6. Altering physical appearance.
  7. Moving to other states with less stringent laws 

The last few criteria are intriguing. because it has little to do with identity theft. People get married, move to where life is better for them, or decide to try new hairstyles. I have moved a few times over the years, and I cut my hair shorter and have grown the "Stone Cold" goatee for a few years until it started going gray. Also, who is to say the discrepancy in the data is not result of clerical errors? (It happens to the best of us.) So I am likely ranked among those the researcher determined to be trying to shirk the system. Below are the techniques the researcher claims he utilized:

Rebovich and his colleagues employed various techniques to carry out their research such as: 

  • Conducting site visits where they interviewed subject matter experts in several states to discuss the registration, monitoring and absconder location process. 
  • Sending out a nationwide survey to law enforcement involved with sex offender registration, monitoring and location.
  • Analyzing data on registered sex offenders from the FBI/CJIS national database to develop estimates of the extent and nature of the missing sex offender problem, examine missing sex offender locations and to identify the factors that distinguish compliant from noncompliant sex offenders.
I honestly don't know how the first two techniques helped the researcher arrive to a conclusion. In particular, the "survey of law enforcement" method was the flawed technique that gave rise to the thoroughly debunked "100,000 missing sex offenders" myth. I must ask whatever happened to this study? To this date, the study has not been subject to peer-review (neither was the Parents For Megan's Law study that gave rise to the 100,000 missing RSO myth).

Another question is why the results were announced at a conference before anyone had a chance to review the findings:

And at least one longtime Dallas sex offender treatment provider questioned the motives for even conducting the study in the first place. “I’m extremely skeptical and I welcome an opportunity to read” the study when it’s finally published, said Philip Taylor, who has treated sex offenders for almost 20 years. “It seems to me that the premise fits in with the crafty, scheming sex offender that’s smarter than everyone else, and that’s just not the case.” Taylor said releasing some of the results of the study before all the data is ready for publication in its entirety touches on the issue of “research ethics.” “You don’t hold a conference and announce your findings before you’re ready to publish your paper,” Taylor said. “It’s a lot like rumor-mongering, and that’s when it becomes problematic.”

Thankfully, this study has not been utilized as the basis for a lot of public policy and has been all but forgotten. However, other studies, like the Prentky study (which claims high recidivism rates for registrants) and the Butner study (which claimed a link between CP viewers and hands-on offenses), despite being flawed studies, continue to influence public policy today.

One of the most important things you can do is verify what you read. I suggest reading the original source work, not the press release or the news story. If we are discussing a research paper, then try to obtain the original study. Sometimes, a simple email to the authors of the study will work, or, if you have access to a university, you might be able to download it from a university computer. Research papers can be stuffy and a bit confusing if you aren't trained in statistics. However, you can read the abstract and the discussion after the results to find a plain language summary of the study. I have found that sometimes the reporter did a terrible job of simplifying the study or neglecting such things as disclaimers (most research has a brief discussion on potential limitations of the study, such as sample size or demographics concerns). If you are verifying the news source, check with other reputable news sites (I don't consider many independent sites like Brietbart or The Examiner to be accurate news sources; as bad as the national media can be, independent news outlets can be far worse).

Doing your research takes time and a little know-how. It is not convenient but it saves time in the long-run. If you see a report that looks crazy, like a story of a kid getting 25 years for a phone threat, then verify the facts before you pass it on. That is not to say all crazy stories out there that are true, like the story of the woman who called the cops on her teen for looking at porn. Just remember to take the time to verify a story by doing a little fact-checking. Not every parody site is as obvious as The Onion, but it is embarrassing to have to tell people who read your pages that you posted a smoking pile of bovine excrement and you have to retract. 

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