Saturday, December 24, 2005

"Little Red Book" Story Leaves Many Commentators with Faces of Crimson

(I meant to write on this earlier today but the press of The Day Before Christmas stole all my time until now)

Last week a good bit of hullabaloo attended the story carried in a Massachusetts newspaper about Dept of Homeland Security agents paying a "friendly visit" to a student who requested a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book" through Inter-Library Loan(ILL). This was reported on through the blogs of many political persuasions, including here on the Boston Progressive ( "Homeland Security is Protecting Your Interlibrary Loans" ). There was speculation on the veracity of the story, and presumption of the motives and methods of governmental agencies involved (with the, again, presumption of the student's account being true).

On the "it's a hoax!" camp a few "red flags," as it were, questions raised included the sheer volume of ILL requests that would need "friendly visits," doubt that the so-called "watch list" of literature exists, and the detail that the library system in question does not use SSN as an identifier on their ILL requests.

On the "Of course it's true!" camp, the left was eager to jump on the bandwagon of "see! Big Brother *is* watching!" and those on the right proclaiming "we have to have this kind of data-mining so we can protect our citizens and the Constitution!"

Part of the difficulty on getting independent confirmation of whether or not the library systems requests are resulting in Dept. Of Homeland Security (or other agency) involvement is that if any such involvement were in place, the Patriot Act allows for inquiries and action, but also has provisions that the libraries in question would be forbidden to reveal that DHS had made any inquiries. Without the transparency of visible accountability it is harder to prove, or disprove, accounts of this nature.

The paper that broke the initial story (The New Bedford Standard Times ) kept digging for more details, and are now reporting that the story was fabricated out of whole cloth by the students, and that he sold his professors a bill of goods about this. ("Federal agents' visit was a hoax")
NEW BEDFORD -- The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.
During the whole episode, the professors said that while they wanted to protect the student from the media that were flooding their voice mails and e-mail boxes seeking comment and information, they also wanted to know: Was the story true?

"I grew skeptical of this story, as did Bob [Pontbriand], considering the ramifications," Dr. Williams said yesterday. "I spent the last five days avoiding work, and the international media, and rest, trying to get names and dates and facts. My investigation eventually took me to his house, where I began to investigate family matters. I eventually found out the whole thing had been invented, and I'm happy to report that it's safe to borrow books."

Dr. Williams said he does not regret bringing the story to light, but that now the issue can be put to rest.

"I wasn't involved in some partisan struggle to embarrass the Bush administration, I just wanted the truth," he said.

Dr. Pontbriand said the entire episode has been "an incredible experience and exposure for something a student had said." He said all along, his only desire had been to "get to the bottom of it and get the truth of the matter."

"When it blew up into an international story, our only desire was to interview this student and get to the truth. We did not want from the outset to declare the student a liar, but we wanted to check out his story," he said. "It was a disastrous thing for him to do. He needs attention, he needs care. I feel for the kid. We have great concern for this student's health and welfare."
The questions that we need to look at now are:

  • What was the student's motive for starting the hoax? Was it just something he was trying as a prank on two professors, and it got more exposure than he expected? Or was he deluding himself as to what happened?
  • Why were some in the "blogosphere" so quick to believe this? Did we want to believe that this kind of surveillance happens routinely?
  • Are we too trusting? Naive? Gullible? (The three need not be synonymous)
  • What does this say about the nature of the transmission of information through the internet in general, and blogging in particular?

  • Because of the pervasiveness of the internet, and reliability of transmission (if not reliability of *content*) this took what, in the past, would have been an amusing "silly season" filler, and grew legs that surprised all involved.

    I've gotten correspondence that this has already spawned an urban legend in the guise of a similar story on the west coast, with the library system involved being at UCLA and other speculation that the recantation is part of a cover-up, or a purposeful red herring to raise doubts in regards to future, actual, incidents of this nature. Again, this kind of speculation can go on without being definitively disproven because of the secrecy provisions forbidding acknowlegement.

    Kudos to the Standard-Times for following up, and admitting that they too were (at least initially) taken in.


  • Article from Boston Progressive on 12/18/05 ( "Homeland Security is Protecting Your Interlibrary Loans")
  • 12/17/05 - Original story from Standard-Times ( "Agents' visit chills UMass Dartmouth senior")
  • 12/21/2005 - first follow-up by Standard-Times ( "'Little Red Book' story gets wide publicity")
  • 12/24/2005 - Second follow-up and reporting of hoax by Standard-times ("Federal agents' visit was a hoax")
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