23.11.2012 | Fantasy Island

‚ÄčAn island long believed to be in the middle of the Coral Sea, about 1,200 kilometres due east of Queensland, does not exist, Australian scientists have just discovered.

​The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “Sandy Island” appears to be an error that has been propagated through numerous maps and charts. 

“We became suspicious when the navigation charts used by the ship showed a depth of 1,400 metres in an area where our scientific maps and Google Earth showed the existence of a large island,” a scientist told the Herald. “Somehow this error has propagated through to the world coastline database from which a lot of maps are made.”

It is the perfect parable of disinformation in the ‘information age’. A piece of data, incorrect as it turns out, is published somewhere and makes its way onto the internet. Other sources pick it up and republish. They may be news aggregators, hungry for content; they may be journalists too busy (let’s be kind) to do their own fact checking. Search engines pick up the story, driven by no editor other than their own algorithm. Pretty soon, the story is established. Its topicality wanes, but the story remains, archived, there for anyone armed with the relevant keyword search.    

It is not always just human error; false stories can be the result of human mischief, too. There is nothing particularly new about scandal-mongering – much of West Africa’s lively domestic business journalism would be familiar to 17th century pamphleteers. In Russia, the production of negative information or kompromat is an integral part of the PR landscape.

The irony is that such stories gain sufficient traction that they become reputational issues in their own right. “No smoke without fire” becomes a compelling inference that is hard to ignore. The lesson is clear. When conducting research – be it to evaluate a counterparty’s reputation, understand a company’s early years, prove a source of wealth, or trace assets – there are no short cuts.

“We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island,” said Steven Micklethwaite of the University of Western Australia. “Then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so that we can change the world map.” Now that’s proper research.