11th May 2001 at 01:00
The truth is out thereI But how do you distinguish between fiction and fact on the Net? Arnold Evans fights back against the Gullibility Virus.

Warning, Caution, Danger and Beware. Be on the look-out for an email with that title. It contains details of a computer virus that has already unleashed untold havoc throughout the world. What makes it particularly troublesome is that, unlike most computer viruses, it doesn't infect PCs, but the people who use them. Scary or what?

The Gullibility Virus, as it is called, can strike at anyone who ever uses the Web or reads junk email. It causes otherwise rational individuals "to believe any groundless story, legend or dire warning that happens to show up in their mailbox".

So - you guessed it - this round-robin is yet another Internet hoax. But, at least it's one that provides a timely reminder that you should never go online without first equipping yourself with an economy-sized pinch of salt.

Like most people, I flatter myself that no one can pull the wool over my eyes. I don't believe financial advisers, astrologers, tipsters, double-glazing salespersons, politicians, know-alls in pubs, or half of what I read in the newspapers - including articles I've written myself. But, for some odd reason, if I see anything on a computer screen, I instinctively feel inclined to believe it.

For example, I have been visiting the various sites devoted to the growing menace posed by the Zetas. Don't pretend you don't know: these are the lizard-like creatures that inhabit the Zeta Reticuli star system, but who regularly visit our planet to abduct prime specimens of Homo sapiens. After doing their dastardly experiments, they allow a few of their more fortunate guinea pigs to return to earth to carry on with their lives.

Don't laugh - it could have already happened to you. The reason you don't remember is that the Zetas have done their damnedest to erase the incident from your memory. Fortunately, it's still possible to determine whether you've been subjected to this indignity. All you have to do is complete the very helpful online questionnaire which you'll find at the site hosted by Alien Abduction Experience and Research (AAER). I clicked my way through the questions and - I'll confess it - felt a mild pang of disappointment when I discovered that there was only a five per cent chance that I have helped the Zetas with their enquiries.

If someone with a clipboard approached me in the street with the same questionnaire, I'd break into a brisk trot. But somehow, on the Internet, even the daftest ideas don't seem quite so daft. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with the endless hype about the Information Revolution and the Digital Age which predisposes us to treat what we read on a VDU with more respect than we would if it were delivered to us by any other medium. Or perhaps it is because HTL is a great leveller: pages produced by a fevered brain in a back bedroom don't immediately strike the casual surfer as being significantly different from those that emanate from the most celebrated minds in a learned institution That's why common sense is so useful when you're online. It didn't take me very long to work out that if the Zetas really were a threat to the human race, Anne Robinson would have exposed them on Watchdog or Patrick Moore would have made at least a fleeting reference to Zeta Reticuli on The Sky at Night. It's sad, I know, but it's a fact of life: the more interesting the material you find on the Web, the less likely it is to be true.

Not that I mind too much. Like most people I surf the Net, not in search of the truth, but of entertainment. I read about the Zetas in much the same spirit as I watch the X-Files on television. I know both are a load of bunkum - but it's fascinating bunkum and it does help to pass the time.

Teachers, of course, can't afford to be so cavalier in their attitude towards the Web - especially if they encourage children to use it to carry out research. The truth is out there - but so, too, is an awful lot of half-truth, misinformation, propaganda, bigotry, inexactitude, perfidy and porky pies. Left to their own devices, pupils would soon discover, for example, that the Holocaust never happened, that the HIV virus is God's considered response to gay pride and there's no proven link between smoking and lung cancer. If you haven't yet visited any of the Web's loonier sites, you should - if only to see for yourself that many of them are well written, impeccably organised, attractively presented and dangerously plausible. You'll recognise how barmy they are, but will your pupils?

You could side-step the problem by bookmarking exactly which sites classes are allowed to access on the school's computers. This, of course, is only of limited value as most children do their serious surfing at home. So it's of far more benefit - but far more difficult - to teach them how to evaluate websites for themselves.

If you feel uncertain about how to do this, you will find plenty of advice at the excellent Internet Detective, an interactive tutorial created by academics at the University of Bristol. Intended both for self-directed learning and use in training workshops, it can be studied online or downloaded to a hard disk. Teachers will find it a relatively painless way of providing themselves with some useful in-service training. Older pupils could also benefit from it. But don't get too excited. It will take more than an interactive tutorial, however thorough, to immunise any of us against the Gullibility Virus. abduct.comsurvey.htmDid you know gullible isn't in the dictionary? Email Arnold

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