Bad News: When Is A Hoax Not A Hoax?


This might well be a little bit of old news by now (given that I covered this story on our second anniversary Skeptics With A K show) but I can still confidently say that anyone who s watching the live stream within an internet explorer 6 browser is an idiot.

Now you might think that’s because there was a recent hoax survey which claimed that a psychometric testing company had analysed the IQ of users of different browsers, and had determined that users of internet explorer 6 are most likely to be flat-out dumb, but that’s not actually why I’m calling you idiots. It just a shit browser, massively outdated and an all-round piece of trash, and if you’re using it, you’re objectively an idiot.

That aside, there is something interesting about this hoax survey story. For those that haven’t heard of it, last month the media was all over this story, and not just the usual suspects. The short version is that AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting Company published a press release claiming that after surveying 101,326 people for their IQ and broswer of choice, and mapping this into a good solid graph, they were able to establish that internet explorer users had a ludicrously low IQ, around the 80 mark.

“The study showed a substantial relationship between an individual’s cognitive ability and their choice of web browser,” AptiQuant concluded. “From the test results, it is a clear indication that individuals on the lower side of the IQ scale tend to resist a change/upgrade of their browsers.”

Under an approximately common model, an IQ of 70-80 would be termed ‘borderline deficient’, and anything below 70 being ‘Definite feeble-mindedness’, so it was a pretty staggering correlation if true. Staggering enough to catch the eye of the BBC, CNN, the Daily Fail, the Telegraph and pretty much everywhere else (though many have deleted the initial news story now, annoyingly). At the time, I saw it (I obviously have a google alert to tell me when a new survey story appears, particularly one that’s in the Daily Mail), and I thought ‘huh, that’s clearly PR for this company AptiQuant’ and left it there. I never smelled a hoax, I just didn’t see it worth looking into any further. More on that in a moment.

However, it turns out it was a hoax after all, and soon after some digging work by the BBC uncovered the reality behind the story, newspapers left right and centre updated their coverage to reveal the massive hoax, how everyone had been had and how it was all the fault of one wag who made up the story. Again, more on THAT in a moment too.

The wag in question was one Tarandeep Gill, a web developer pissed off at having to keep supporting ie6 when it’s an old and useless browser, and figuring the story would be a fun way to shame people into upgrading and generally make them aware of the fact that ie6 should be phased out.

What I find particularly interesting is that at the same time that Tarandeep’s quote ‘elaborate hoax’ was being picked apart in the media, detailing how he fooled them and how his con trick was undone by good old-fashioned journalism, the following stories were in the newspaper:

From the Daily Mail:

It has always been considered rude to ask a lady her age. But it seems it’s also a step too far to inquire of her shoe size.

Women are becoming increasingly touchy about the length of their feet as average sizes go up.

Many are embarrassed because they think having large feet is masculine.

The result, according to a study, is that half of women fib to their friends and partners about the size of their shoes.

And 82 per cent of those with size eight or nine feet say their large footprint makes them feel particularly ashamed.

Debenhams, which carried out the research, said soaring demand for size nine shoes had prompted it to increase stocks of larger sizes by 80 per cent.

So, women are ashamed and embarrassed about their big feet, says store advertising a change in its larger-sized-shoe policy.

From the Guardian:

A culture of celebrity and television shows such as Big Brother and The Apprentice have impaired the confidence of a generation of British youngsters, according to a survey of 16- to 24-year-olds.

The research, overseen by academics from Teesside University, found that 82% of British youngsters said the UK’s celebrity culture had created “unachievable role models” which were damaging to their self-esteem.

Teesside youth and communities expert Professor Tony Chapman said the representative sample of 1,500 young adults was part of a long-term study into youth attitudes undertaken by O2, the mobile phone company, looking at the generation who entered adulthood and the job market during the downturn.

O2, of course, being the mobile phone providers who were the primary sponsor of Big Brother for the time it was on Channel 4.

From the Telegraph:

A fifth of married couples go a full week without kissing – with older people among the least romantic.

Even when couples do kiss it is usually a quick affair lasting no more than five seconds, according to a survey.

But younger sweethearts are more romantic with those aged between 18 and 24 saying they lock lips with a partner 11 times a week on average.

The findings have been released to launch a campaign by the British Heart Foundation to teach lifesaving skills such as the kiss of life to school children as part of the national curriculum.

And from the Mail again:

The magical combination of 6-7-8 has been hailed by psychologists as the happiest time of the year.

The sixth day at 7pm in the eighth month – or 7pm on August 6 – is the day people feel most content because of the high temperatures, school holidays and prospect of a summer break.

A study by loyalty scheme Nectar revealed that we smile most between 7pm and 8pm each day, are at our cheeriest on Saturdays and love August more than any other month.

And from the Express:

THE average family kitchen is the setting for 384 arguments, 192 heart-to-hearts, 26,280 meals – and seven sex romps, a study revealed yesterday.

Researchers found the typical family lives in a house for eight years during which time their kitchen sees the entire spectrum of life.

It will play host to 16 burned dinners, 1,824 kisses and six life-changing decisions. And it will be redecorated and refurbished twice.

The study also revealed 13 per cent of couples decide to get married after a kitchen discussion while 15 per cent settle for a divorce.

The survey of 3,000 people was commissioned by Siemens Home Appliances to mark the launch of a fridge freezer.

And from the Express:

RESEARCHERS have uncovered the top 20 tricks women use to make themselves feel seductive.

And it seems the oldest methods are the best – including lipstick with matching nail varnish and an alluring hint of cleavage.

Interestingly, a simple spray of favourite perfume comes top of the list for helping women feel sexy. A new hairdo and a happy smile also rank highly.

Women also hailed settling down into a warm bath, showing off their well-maintained legs and wearing a push-up bra as quick fixes for achieving the “it” factor.

The report also revealed that the average woman only feels truly irresistible once a week – usually on a Saturday night.

Sara Wolverson of Superdrug, which commissioned the research, said: “This poll clearly indicates that while women know exactly what they have to do in order to feel sexy, they obviously aren’t doing it often enough.

These are all from around the same week as the AptiQuant hoax, and trust me I could go on. And this is what I think is particularly interesting about the IQ hoax story – it’s an interesting definition of the word ‘hoax’. The hoaxer, Gill, identified a goal – to get the media to cover the crapness of ie6, invented some realistic-sounding findings – IE6 users are dumb, and presented the press release-friendly story as if true. And this was the ‘elaborate’ hoax the media congratulated themselves on seeing through and giggled about having been ‘had’ by.

Whereas we’ve seen a kitchen appliance brand, reward card scheme, cosmetics shop or whatever identify a goal – getting their name in the press, generating some realistic-sounding findings (often through the biased survey tactics and dodgy research methods I’ve gone over many times), and then presenting a press-release-friendly story as if it’s true… and that’s the news. Nobody says a word. It gets printed as if it wasn’t a carbon fucking copy of the method used by Gill.

It’s kinda like calling out a Bigfoot film as a hoax, because it was faked by an amateur rather than faked by a Bigfoot-film-faking professional. The fact is, it wasn’t so elaborate a hoax. The real elaborate hoax is the dodgy marketing researchers and public relation firms who not only successfully push the products that form their goals AND make a living out of this kind of thing, but even make the journalists who print their work completely oblivious to the fact that in so many cases, there’s almost nothing to tell them from the hoaxers they congratulate themselves in over-turning.

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  1. #1 by Richard on September 26, 2011 - 20:18

    Perhaps Stephen Glass now consults with the PR firms on how to get free advertising copy syndicated in the press ha?

    Would of been interesting if the study had merit and the relationship between IE6 use and dailymail readership ha

  2. #2 by stewgreen on October 3, 2011 - 17:20

    Excellent Piece :Thank God there are some sane people in this insane world. Yes most reported news is hoax, not only in individual stories but in the perspective by choice of stories reported. Therefore creating a hoax world in the minds of the public instead of the true picture they need to make good decisions.
    in the 2011 UK media news is not news but rather
    – Press releases
    – plugging other programmes
    – made up for filling space, political or malicious reasons
    – endless speculation (cheap way of filling time) when they could just wait for the outcome
    – talking about themselves : celebrities, media, London etc

(will not be published)