Students and Journalists Believe Everything They Read Online

February 9, 2011

Brit Trogen

The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) is an endangered mollusk, and the only cephalopod to spend the majority of its life in temperate rainforests rather than ocean habitats. It's one of the strangest creatures in existence, highly intelligent, and is threatened by habitat destruction, illegal trade, and predation by hawks and Sasquatch. It's also 100% fake.


Science in Seconds tree octopus


The "elusive tree octopus" was created in 1998 as an internet hoax by Lyle Zapato. Its website, despite an initial appearance of legitimacy, doesn't stand up to scrutiny (a link to the "People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins" facebook page, for example). But despite glaring clues that the whole thing is meant to be a joke, 24 out of 25 seventh-graders considered the site "very credible" in one highly publicized study from the University of Connecticut in 2006. All of them ultimately fell for the hoax.  


These results came as a shock; internet-savvy students were actually highly gullible when it comes to discriminating sources of online information. But the recent reemergence of this story on the web also, ironically, seems to be based on people taking internet sources for granted. Only this time, it's not students, but journalists and bloggers. 


Science in Seconds brit trogen


The first round of recent coverage on this story was not based on new research (the most recent study, by Donald J. Leu was done in 2007), but on a Pearson press release, which announced that Dr. Leu would be speaking on his research in an upcoming lecture in Texas. In an apparent failure to critically read and investigate the information provided in the press release, some journalists (like here and here) mistakenly depicted the octopus study as a new finding, in addition to misrepresenting several key facts.


The second round of articles has been of a different tone: articles accusing journalists of believing anything. These posts (like this and this), have come to the conclusion that because a few people chose to write on this subject, journalists as a whole are "no smarter than 13-year olds." These posts are now making the rounds on Twitter, with tags like "Journalists believe everything they see online." Of course, it's worth noting that the people writing these are themselves journalists... writing without evidence, based only on something they read online. Which I guess, in a way proves the point. 


Journalists really will believe everything they read online; even the idea that they'll believe anything.


Ultimately, gullibility isn't limited to the internet, as social psychologists have been studying for years. Children have a tendency to believe everything they hear, online or in real life. Climbing octopus, flying reindeer... Not really cause for concern until you hit twenty or so.



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