Felix Stalder on Wed, 3 Mar 1999 07:07:39 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Hackers seize control .... [an afterthought]

So, what's up with hackers controlling a military satellite? If it were
April fool's day the situation would be clear: a good joke of a newspaper
journalist skillfully pushing the hot buttons to get people excited. But
it's March 2nd and the veracity of this news item remains dubious. At any
rate, it's a good example of how news travel in a network environment, of
how new and old media, the public and the private are interrelated and of
the self-perpetuating nature of rumors.

The history of the distribution seems to be fairly clear. A British
newspaper, Sunday Business, ran a story about hackers having seized control
over a British military satellite. The sources are unnamed and no official
agency comments. On Sunday, Reuters picks up the story, accurately
reiterating that the sources are unnamed and no official comment on the
story is available. However, through the sheer fact of reporting, it adds
the "Reuters News" credibility to it.  So much old media business as usual.
However, in the old days, very few people, mainly professional journalist
and editors, would have seen this message and, most likely, disregarded it.

But now, services like Yahoo! run "breaking news" sites entirely based on
unedited messages from news agencies such as Reuters. Their only editorial
criteria is the general good reputation of the agencies, no need to look at
the messages anymore.  By doing this, Yahoo! adds a second layer of
authenticity to the story:  its own reputation as one of the most popular
destinations online, valued multiple billions in the stock market.  Before
the story appeared on nettime, it took yet another step of "authentication"
which is characteristic for the Internet. A friend of mine, whom I trust as
a critical observer of Internet related things, read the story and forward
it to my personal inbox because we had talked about stuff like that a
couple of days earlier. By forwarding it, he added a third, this time
personal, layer of credibility to the news item. For me, this story --
still all sources are unnamed and no official comment available --  came
from a trusted source, a friend of mine.

So, does knowing the history of distribution allow us to check the veracity
of the message? No.  And as long as no official comment is available, we
will not get closer to knowing anything. But does an official comment
really help? Do you trust the British Secret Service?  Given the
self-reinforcing nature of rumors, the only comment that could stop the
rumor would be an official acknowledgement that, indeed, a satellite was
hacked. Any official denial of such an event would raise suspicion. If
nothing happened why bother to comment?

The confusions like this one are caused by the speed at which information
travels through electronic networks and missing valves to regulate the
transition from the private to the public and vice-versa.  Prior to sites
like Yahoo! on the Internet, Reuters news  were in a sense private because
they were, for all practical purposes, normally not directly accessible for
the public. They got filtered by newspapers and electronic media which then
made them public.  A faster speed of transmission allows for more
information to be transmitted. To cope with the steadily rising amount of
information, we shift our mode of thinking from analysis to pattern
recognition, assessing a message not by its content but by the reputation
of the source.

But speed also takes care of its own problems. In an hour or two,
everything will be forgotten, unless more information fuels the rumor mill.
And the lesson? Slowness, by and of itself, is now a critical attitude. If
its important, it will return. Just wait a while, if it doesn't show up
again, you can be happy not to have bothered in the first place.

So, what's up with the satellite? Relax, tomorrow you will either know nor
not remember anything.

[Thanks to Andreas Hagenbach for forwarding me a telepolis article on this
subject, which I hope is accurate......]


Les faits sont faits.
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