The Smell Test: Why the IE6 Hoax Should Have Raised Doubts on its Face

A few days ago the media was all abuzz with a story about research that posited a correlation between low IQ and users of Internet Explorer 6 (the browser being on its ninth version now). Turns out, the company that did the alleged research, ApTiquant, is a fake, an elaborate hoax (as explained on the BBC) that actually got large media outlets to spread the word that Internet Explorer 6 users are in some ways mentally deficient. Additionally, according to the ApTiquant home page:

AptiQuant was set up in late July 2011 by comparison shopping website AtCheap.com, in order to launch a fake “study” called  “Intelligent Quotient and Browser Usage.” The study claimed that people using Internet Explorer have a below than average IQ score. The study took the IT world by storm. The main purpose behind this hoax was to create awareness about the incompatibilities of IE6, and not to insult or hurt anyone.

I suppose I should say they extrapolated lower intelligence to Internet Explorer users in general considering the faux-research and judging by some of the headlines found in a Google search:

So, there is the obvious lesson in vigorous fact checking to avoid jumping to conclusions like speculating that Muslim extremists were behind the Norway massacre or Vitamin C can prevent the common cold. But, what saddens me is how this could have passed the first sniff test for most of these outlets.

In fact, now that the jig is up, the perpetrators of the hoax have conveniently posted a breakdown of how hoax-y this hoax was from the outset:

Tell-Tale signs that should have uncovered the hoax in less than 5 minutes!

  1. The domain was registered on July 14th 2011.
  2. The test that was mentioned in the report, “Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (IV) test” is a copyrighted test and cannot be administered online.
  3. The phone number listed on the report and the press release is the same listed on the press releases/whois of my other websites. A google search reveals this.
  4. The address listed on the report does not exist.
  5. I copy/pasted most of the material from “Central Test” and got lazy to even change the pictures.
  6. The website is made in WordPress. Come on now!
  7. I am sure, my haphazardly put together report had more than one grammatical mistakes.
  8. There is a link to our website AtCheap.com in the footer.

Before I get accused of Monday morning quarterbacking, I didn’t notice these specific items either when I saw the story online. Though, the items above are pretty simple red flags that a trained, experienced journalist should have followed up on. No, I noticed some other clues that made me arch an eyebrow and go into Velma from Scooby-Doo mode (jinkies!).

On the Technolog blog on MSNBC.com, they displayed the fancy looking graph from the ApTiquant research PDF:

ApTiquant Graph

Not shown: Netscape users who have already migrated off-planet in sheer frustration

Clicking on the graph in the Technolog post took you to the press release with the headline ‘Is Internet Explorer For The Dumb? A New Study Suggests Exactly That.

So, there were two problems glaring at me. The first is that looking at the graph, the average score of the IE with Chrome Frame, Camino and Opera users are all near the ‘genius’ level based on the Wechsler scale claimed to have been used in the research. I was a bit skeptical that there are so many individuals of ‘superior and ‘very superior’  intelligence browsing the web looking for free online IQ tests in sufficient numbers to be meaningful for data analysis purposes. Secondly, it’s  a bit suspicious that a company providing a press release for what would superficially look like a rigorous study would use a blunt and derisive word like ‘dumb’ to describe a segment of their tested population. It hardly sounds scientific or professional, but there it was on the screen.

Just finding two simple anomalies that didn’t even require making a phone call or running an Internet search and letting doubts take hold and suspicion dictate meaningful inquiries, might have saved a number of media outlets from getting egg on their faces once the hoax was discovered. Once again, put away the jump-to-conclusion-mat, everyone! Slow down and apply some critical thinking.

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3 Responses to The Smell Test: Why the IE6 Hoax Should Have Raised Doubts on its Face

  1. It seems like it was a lazy hoax to expose how lazy the media is.

    so, in that sense, a very successful hoax, owing to the ease of the target

  2. I thought it was really credible because of the source websites that spread the news. It also made sense in some way because less intelligent people might not bother to update their browser as often, or try a new one..

    • Mike Nam says:

      My point is that just because it looked credible at first glance, it does not absolve journalists from taking a second glance and noticing the red flags of a hoax or an error.

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