The Emma Watson hoax is a reminder to journalists that you can’t trust the web’s Wild West

What goes on at 4chan is utterly beyond the pale, but reporters were all too ready to take an online ruse at face value

Will Gore@willjgore
Sunday 28 September 2014 17:14

I am not a complete technophobe. But when it comes to surfing the web I am definitely more tourist bodyboarder at Padstow than Bodhi in Point Break.

Recent reports about the website 4chan initially left me mystified, therefore. It is, according to media coverage, an online refuge for geeks, manga fans, misogynists and the socially inept. It is the forum via which hackers trade tips and their wares, most recently naked pictures of various Hollywood celebrities. It may indeed be all those things. Yet one imagines it is also a hangout for millions of young people who are bored but in no sense malevolent.

Nonetheless, because of the site’s involvement with those hacked photos of stars including the actress Jennifer Lawrence, it seemed reasonable to believe last week’s news that a threat to reveal explicit images of fellow actress Emma Watson – made shortly after she spoke about her role as a UN goodwill ambassador – had also been the work of 4chan users. Indeed, the web page which carried the warning featured 4chan logos. Surely there could be no doubt.

And yet. First of all, Watson’s representatives indicated that no such pictures existed. Therefore, anyone threatening to reveal them was less than credible. Then, in an unexpected turn, it emerged that the whole construct was a hoax designed for the very purpose of framing 4chan. The Independent, along with everyone else, had fallen for it.

Of course, the fact remains that some of what goes on at 4chan and similar sites is utterly beyond the pale. Critics would say it deserves no sympathy for having been roundly, if undeservedly, condemned for the Watson threat, when it has provided a platform for the actual violation of others. There is something in that.

However, one of the most common defences of the “traditional” media is that the high quality of its journalism means its content can be trusted. By contrast, the internet is a kind of Wild West where it is hard to distinguish reality from fiction. In the Watson/4chan hoax, journalists were all too ready to take an online ruse at face value. All of which might prove the point about the internet’s reliability, but it rather undermines the notion of the mainstream media’s ability to get to the truth.

Isis, IS, Isil... which is right?

Like all media organisations, The Independent has found itself in something of a quandary when it comes to describing the militant group Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria).

Some readers have suggested the term Isis should be avoided because it creates a stigma for the apparently thousands of women around the world named after the Egyptian goddess of nature and magic. One individual contended that, because the group refers to itself as Islamic State, so should we.

Both those arguments are flawed. But equally, it seems slightly unsatisfactory that there are various titles in circulation. The potential downside of “Islamic State” is it might confer credibility on an organisation that is arguably neither of those things. The use of Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is favoured by the Government, but do most people really know where the Levant is?

The most important thing is that we use a term which people understand. Isis and Islamic State seem the best options in that respect and for the time being we plan to stick with the former. We may have to revisit the question before Goldie takes on Isis on Boat Race day.

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