One of the activities you could earn points for completing in this week’s Summer Reading Game was to look up the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus online and tell us what you think of this creature and how you can help save it.
Chances are if you plugged “Pacific Northwest tree octopus” into Google (or maybe Bing or Yahoo if you’re a rebel) you probably saw a website which gave a rather detailed description of this creature and had all sorts of information available about it there.
But, if you were to look at the bottom of the homepage you would find that the site was authored by one man and had the following disclaimer at the bottom of the page:
“This site is not associated with any school or educational organization,
other than the Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society.”
Hmm… that sounds a bit odd. Especially if you know that haggis is a traditional Scottish food made from sheep entrails that are chopped up with spices and oatmeal and are usually served after being boiled inside a sheep’s stomach. So conserving “wild haggis” is clearly not something that’s actually possible.
Another clue that this website might not be valid? All the links on the site return you to a different part of the same http://zapatopi.net/ domain. Legitimate websites for wildlife conservation will have a multitude of links containing different kinds of information, they will tell you specifically about their organization and what they accomplish with their research or funding, and you can cross-reference their website with other reputable sites and find the same information.
But perhaps the biggest clue that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is not a real animal should be the second or third search result that is returned, which is the Wikipedia entry for the creature. The first line of the entry – which you see a preview of in the search result list – states, “The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is an Internet hoax created in 1998 by Lyle Zapato.” Ah-ha! Now that makes sense.
So what can we learn from this?
#1-People on the internet lie. Think critically about what you read online and don’t trust websites just because they “sound right.”
#2 – Skim at least the first page of your search results and see if the sources you’re looking at seem to agree with other reputable websites. (Sure, Wikipedia isn’t always 100% accurate, but it’s actually fact-checked quite frequently and the citations at the end of each article can usually help you find further information on a subject.)
#3- Look at the website domain: does it end in .net or .com? Be sure to cross-check that information elsewhere before you decide it’s right. If the website is a .gov or .org site it’s less likely that it will be a hoax, but it’s not completely impossible. In the words of Maynard James Keenan, “Think for yourself, question authority.” Always question whether or not the person or entity online that claims to be an authority is actually legit.