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Essay: How Information Gets Lost In The Translation On The Internet

Updated on May 24, 2014

Published May 24, 2014

by Rachael O'Halloran

What Will I Write Today?

I Love Books!

Books, books and more books!
Books, books and more books!

FYI About Censuses

By the way, for readers who don't know, censuses are taken every ten years in the United States in order to gauge how the population multiplies.

We are told that the government wants a head count so they have enough people in Congress to vote for our laws. I'm sure there is money involved here somewhere because with the government it's always about the money. At least that is what I read on the internet. :)

How Accurate Is Online Information?

As my Hubpages followers know, I enjoy writing biographies.

What can I say? ... I like researching and reading about the lives of dead people. lol

About ten years ago, with the wealth of information on the internet, I thought I'd eliminate the footwork of going into the physical library building and start relying on virtual records. However, there are some days I get so frustrated when it comes to the accuracy of some (not all) of the biographical information, especially from popular websites where one expects to find true information.

While I do my best with researching each person I choose to write about, making sure I am supplying not only correct information but verifiable information for future historians, I'm finding that the old standby websites like ancestry.com, rootsweb and some of the "pedia's" that many think are reliable, are not really as accurate as I had previously thought.

Take a website like Wikipedia, for example. People heavily rely on this website for almost everything. I know I do. I'll hit them for quick info on someone or some event before I'll sift through the first two pages of Google results. It is fast and for the most part, accurate.

However, links found within the paragraphs can readers to a number of dead ends. A link under historian isn't necessarily going to lead you to more information about the historical person you are looking up. It will take you to the definition of "historian." Not where you want to be, I'm sure.

Usually I scroll down to the footnotes to see where the contributor got their information and that is where I don't mind getting lost for awhile, just checking each one out, following one link after the other. Before I know it, a couple of hours have gone by, and my list of people to write about got longer and longer.

Where Does The Information Come From?

Website information on most websites is contributed by humans who are not infallible. They are usually registered website members permitted to input information into their databases. Some websites allow anyone to edit them as long as they create an account first.

Did you know they can write almost anything they wish on some of these websites?

Now, to give wikipedia its kudos, there are certain steps in place to verify information by the submitting party, but if the verification comes from websites where human input was the method to populate the site with information in the first place, how accurate can that be?

If you read the same information on enough websites, it eventually is treated as true just because of being on so many websites.

Hence the idiom: "I read it on the internet so it must be true!"

The more people who search for the information, they will all get the same results and before you know it, no matter if a statement was true or not, it is now factually true.

Sometimes you'll find a real gem of a website that has a lot of new information about your subject and you'll think, "Wow, I hit a real gold mine here!"

Until you get down to one part of the biography which you happen to know for fact (example: their birthdate which you know is well documented by a dated newspaper birth announcement) and they have gotten it all wrong.

Poof! That balloon has just burst!

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in 1982

Efrem Jr. in 1982
Efrem Jr. in 1982

A Case in Point

I recently finished an article entitled: Spotlight On Efrem Zimbalist Jr. He is the actor who played in 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I. television series and is the father of Stephanie Zimbalist from the television series Remington Steele.

Efrem Jr. died on May 2, 2014. It took me nearly three weeks to write the article because his family tree was so interesting. I dogged finishing that article because each new day was another day to get lost in the history. Until I started to find too many inconsistencies.

I think many of us can understand when websites get information wrong about immigrants to the US because of language barriers, incomplete paperwork, family members just not knowing dates in general.

But while researching Efrem Jr., a man who was born in the United States, some of his demographic data varied a lot from website to website: his birth year, his marriage dates, his graduation information.

Here, let me show you what I mean.

1a and 1b. -. Efrem Jr. was born November 30, 1918. It is documented in his book and on websites we deem to be accurate. Somewhere along the line, somebody messed up.

2a through 2e. By all accounts, each website correctly says that his first marriage was to Emily Munroe McNair and that she died in 1950. But many state she died after 5 years of marriage and most have the wedding year wrong. He clearly says in his book "My Dinner of Herbs" and in interviews that they married before he was drafted in December 1941.

1a.- Alma Gluck's Marriage & Family Record: Efrem Jr. Correct Birth Year is 1918

1a. - This record corresponds to his mother's interviews  speaking about the birth dates of her children. Maria in 1915 and Efrem Jr. in 1918
1a. - This record corresponds to his mother's interviews speaking about the birth dates of her children. Maria in 1915 and Efrem Jr. in 1918 | Source

1b. -Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Incorrect Census Record

Efrem Jr. was born in 1918, not 1919
Efrem Jr. was born in 1918, not 1919

2a. Efrem Jr. Wikipedia page - Incorrect Marriage Date

2a. -Wikipedia page for Efrem Jr. showing INCORRECT marriage date of 1945 for Emily, and saying she died 5 years after wedding. They were married 12/21/41 for 8 years
2a. -Wikipedia page for Efrem Jr. showing INCORRECT marriage date of 1945 for Emily, and saying she died 5 years after wedding. They were married 12/21/41 for 8 years | Source

2b, 2c, 2d, 2e - Efrem Jr. first marriage to Emily McNair

2b. - Close on McNair, but it's December 21, 1941 IMDb.com
2b. - Close on McNair, but it's December 21, 1941 IMDb.com | Source
2c. - Shows wedding date of December 22, 1942. Actual wedding day Sunday, December 21, 1941 just before he was drafted in Dec 1941
2c. - Shows wedding date of December 22, 1942. Actual wedding day Sunday, December 21, 1941 just before he was drafted in Dec 1941 | Source
2d.- Even with their citation showing the actual wedding announcement in the Jan 1942 Washington Post society page, they still got  it wrong in previous photo of December 1942.
2d.- Even with their citation showing the actual wedding announcement in the Jan 1942 Washington Post society page, they still got it wrong in previous photo of December 1942. | Source
2e. - Wedding announcement AFTER the fact, shows they were already married by January 4, 1942, not as in above listing of December 21, 1942. They were married for 8 years, not 5 when she died in 1950.
2e. - Wedding announcement AFTER the fact, shows they were already married by January 4, 1942, not as in above listing of December 21, 1942. They were married for 8 years, not 5 when she died in 1950. | Source

4. Reba Fiersohn - Alma Gluck - Alma Zimbalist

When I finished Efrem Jr.'s article, I decided to use the family research I had turned up, to write a Spotlight about his mother, Reba Fiersohn, who later became the famous opera singer Alma Gluck.

However, the amount of contradictory data in this woman's biographical information was astounding!

I couldn't trust the U.S. Census Reports of 1900, 1910 and 1930 because each record stated different birth years, different marriage dates and contradiction in family relationships (child's name married to parent's name, etc.)

This is what I know to be true about Alma Gluck (Efrem Jr.'s mother, known in historical and census records as Reba Fiersohn, and on many internet sites as Reba Fierson, Alma Glick, Alma Zimbalist).

She was born May 11, 1884 in Bucharest, Romania. In 1890, she immigrated to this country with her mother, who was 50 years old when she was born. Reba was the youngest of seven children, four who lived past infancy. Her father died in Romania when Reba was 2.

Her older (by 18 years) sister Celia came to America in 1886 to make the way to bring the rest of her family over from Romania. In 1888, she married Herman Goldstein, and with his help they brought her family here by 1890. It is their home address we see listed as residence on census reports.

Watch how the information changes from record to record. Take a look at Photo #4a below.

This is Reba Fiersohn's 1900 US Census Record showing her birth year as 1882 and age as 18. From this record, we have no idea who supplied the census information. Whether her age was calculated by the census worker, or whether the person supplying the information was asked how old she was first, is not known.

4a. - -Reba Fiersohn (Alma Gluck) 1900 Census

4a - Her real birthdate is 1884 and her name has been written as Feinsohn and Fiersohn before she took her stage name as Alma Gluck
4a - Her real birthdate is 1884 and her name has been written as Feinsohn and Fiersohn before she took her stage name as Alma Gluck

4b. - Birth year details

Photo 4b is an enlarged screenshot from Berg and Frank genealogy website showing her birth year as 1882, which just goes to show you that bad information travels as fast as good information.

Berg and Frank's website is a genealogy database of specific families and their information seems legitimate to the average visitor because they show links to document many of their entries.

Whether it was because Alma's birth year was listed here on this site incorrectly, or whether it is because it was first listed incorrectly somewhere else and transferred to this website, the number of websites that showed 1882 almost surpassed the number of websites showing 1884 as her true birth year.

4b. - Berg and Frank website

4b.--genealogy website documenting many family histories and this one picked up the incorrect birth date and published it. Any visitor could take the information with them, copy it to other websites.
4b.--genealogy website documenting many family histories and this one picked up the incorrect birth date and published it. Any visitor could take the information with them, copy it to other websites. | Source

4c. -Alma Zimbalist 1930 Census Record

Photo 4c is finally a record with her correct name, but alas, it has the wrong birth year.

She had already been in this country nearly 40 years; they should have had it right by then!

4c. - Alma Zimbalist - 1930 Census Record

4c - Finally corrects her name, but they have the wrong year of birth.
4c - Finally corrects her name, but they have the wrong year of birth.

Photo 5a - a tombstone, but is it a true marker?

Photo 5a is a screenshot from findagrave.com which is a popular website listing death data on identical tombstones.

Can we say this is Alma Gluck's actual tombstone?

No, we can't. Not unless one physically makes the trek to visit the cemetery of burial - Town Hill Cemetery in New Hartford (Litchfield County), Connecticut and snaps a photo of the marker.

There is no disclaimer on findagrave.com website. :)

5a. - Is findagrave.com trustworthy?

5a. -- findagrave.com doesn't mean this is the actual tombstone on her grave.
5a. -- findagrave.com doesn't mean this is the actual tombstone on her grave.

Photo 5b. - Alma Gluck's daughter

Alma Gluck's daughter was Abigail Marcia Glick Clarke Davenport and she lived to be 93 years old. When she died, her obituary said she was buried in Monterey, California, the place of her death.

When Alma Gluck Zimbalist died on October 27, 1938 her obituary said she was buried in Town Hill Cemetery in New Hartford (Litchfield County), Connecticut.

Photo 5b. - Abigail Marcia Glick Davenport with Alma Gluck's tombstone right behind hers.

5b. - The tombstone for Abigail Marcia Glick Davenport, standing right in front of her mother's, opera star Alma Gluck, even though they are buried in separate cemeteries.
5b. - The tombstone for Abigail Marcia Glick Davenport, standing right in front of her mother's, opera star Alma Gluck, even though they are buried in separate cemeteries.

Buried miles apart

Now, can you tell me how Abigail Marcia Glick Davenport's tombstone can be in front of Alma Gluck Zimbalist's tombstone if they were buried clear across the country from each other?

For me, the website is now a novelty website, nothing more at this point.

6a. -The source list

These are the sources they used: Wikipedia, Findagrave.com, US Federal Census and newspapers they just take the date off the post instead of viewing the actual article. (It costs money to view).

They are using each other for verification so that they end up verifying each other with wrong information.

6a.- Using the same websites for verification that have wrong information; verifying each other

6a. -These are the websites they reference as their sources.  This is how information being told often enough becomes FACT whether it is true or not. Notice findagrave.com
6a. -These are the websites they reference as their sources. This is how information being told often enough becomes FACT whether it is true or not. Notice findagrave.com

7a. -Here is part of how it happened

findagrave.com was originally a stand-alone website which was populated by contributors who entered information into their database when they found content that was relevant to deaths and burials.

Take a look at the numbers of memorials some of these people have written - some total well over 500,000.

7a. -Findagrave.com top contributors and their statistics

7a. -The link to this page is included so go take a look at the unbelievable amount of work these people do to populate this website.
7a. -The link to this page is included so go take a look at the unbelievable amount of work these people do to populate this website. | Source

7b. -This is how most of it happened

The website findagrave.com was sold to ancestry.com and their two databases were merged. Any information that was on findagrave.com became property of ancestry.com and vice versa.

Whatever was either in duplicate or somewhat verifiable, it was deemed by most researchers to be true.

Single point entries would be duly noted, but probably not ranked high in databases since the more obscure an article is, it will typically gets less search terms and views. As you may have noticed here on Hubpages, articles that are out of the ordinary will get less views than articles that are in the mainstream.

When membership websites are erected with bells and whistles like templates that closely resemble government sites like U S Census Records, birth certificates, marriage certificates, diplomas and immigration records, it is very easy to "create and fabricate" than to "search, verify and document."

When rootsweb.com was bought by ancestry.com, guess what happened? Yes, you guessed it. All the information merged again, this time with more than just information from two databases.

Consequently genealogy websites updated their databases to show duplicate information as true information. As ancestry.com bought out more genealogy websites, the information just multiplied, like rumors do.

It crossed over to Wikipedia and other databases, and like my Aunt Veronica used to say, "I read it in the newspaper, so it must be true."

If she were alive today, she'd be saying: "I saw it on the internet, so it must be true."

And that is why we have false information in the case in point of the Zimbalist family.

When too many hands are in the pot contributing information to databases and websites (including community boards, blogs, message boards and comments), someone is going to make an understandable human error, write data that is incorrect (or maybe not verify the facts) and before you know it, it is ALL OVER THE INTERNET by the next morning.

I take you back to my original thought. Don't tell the neighbors something today that you don't want to see splashed all over tomorrow's newspapers.

Don't write something on the internet today that you don't want to see all over the internet by the next morning.

Especially if you have conflicting data and can't know for sure if it is true.

Tips For Budding Genealogists

Remember: You are tomorrow's historians.

1. Verify, verify, verify, then document.

2. When in doubt, do without.

3. First person accounts are always best in the form of family history narratives - oral or written accounts, audio tapes or videos, preferably made by first and second generation family members so they can be passed without questioning the chain of custody.

4. Defer to an autobiography or memoir of family members, where hopefully the author will be truthful and not write the Hollywood version, before you believe a website who purports to have documented data. As you can see from this hub, pictures of documents don't always tell the truth.

5. My last tip is the same as the first. Verify, verify, verify, then document. Be a responsible researcher and a responsible contributor.

Web Of Trust?

Do you find yourself trusting the information you read on popular websites?

See results

Do Not Copy

Thank you for not copying my work!
Thank you for not copying my work! | Source

© Rachael O'Halloran May 24, 2014

© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran

Comments

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  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #AliciaC,

    It really is the best way so we, ourselves, are not at the center of continuing to post doubtful information. Thanks for visiting and commenting. :)

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This hub is both useful and interesting, Rachel. You've brought up some points that have frustrated me when I do research on the Internet. I have followed your "When in doubt, do without" procedure myself!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #vkwok, thanks for reading and commenting. :)

  • vkwok profile image

    Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

    Accurate information is very important. It's interesting how unreliable information can be on the internet. Thanks for sharing.

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 3 years ago

    Dear Rachael,

    Thank you for your thought provoking hubs....

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #ARUN KANTI

    Our news sources use the internet to blast their stories before they even hit the news wires, that's how much the internet plays in shaping public opinion. Certain governments really NEED to fear the internet, in my opinion, especially since much bad news gets started that way in the first place. Often we learn about something governments have done through the internet which later turns out to be true. So I guess we can't condemn all information. But I agree it can work the opposite direction spreading lies and that's where I have the problem with bad information.

    If the authors putting articles up on the internet 1) ACTUALLY wrote them in the first place (instead of copying them, AND 2) if they did their homework in more than one source venue, AND 3) then verified their sources in totally different venues and websites, maybe we might be able to cut down on some of the misinformation out there.

    But I fear it is way too far gone for anyone to make a dent in fixing this problem.

    The one thing that responsible authors can do from this point onward is to follow those three steps and not rely on repeat information to assume it is correct information.

    With no offense meant to you, your example about a Hubpages article on throat scrubbing seems absurd to my sensibilities. I hope the almighty censors at Hubpages, who remove or downgrade perfectly good hubs, got enough reports on that particular hub to take it down.

    I can't imagine anyone of sound mind and common sense even thinking it would be an acceptable practice in the 21st century.

    Thank you for visiting my article and your comment. I hope you'll read some of my other hubs for more thought provoking topics.

    Rachael

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #ChitrangadaSharan

    Doing more than average investigation using more than one type of source is best. Thank you for visiting and commenting :)

  • ARUN KANTI profile image

    ARUN KANTI CHATTERJEE 3 years ago from KOLKATA

    The spread of misinformation or lies through the internet is a big menace now. Even certain governments fear the power of the internet when it is misused for propaganda. To tackle the spread of misinformation online we must first understand it and discuss with those concerned and experts in the line. I read one article on Hubpages advising thorough scrubbing of the throat after major meals. When I told my dentist he said it is a dangerous practice and may lead to serious diseases. Thank you for the thought provoking hub.

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Wonderful hub and very well researched!

    I agree with the concerns you have raised about Internet writings. While we should make use of information available on the Internet, we should not follow it blindly and use our own discretion and judgement in following the same.

    Thanks for this useful hub. Voted up and shared on HP!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #FlourishAnyway,

    Hopefully more will take heed. Thank you for your comment.

    Rachael

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

    You have certainly provided a service in correcting misinformation about him and impressed upon readers the importance of cross-checking sources.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #breakfastpop

    That is exactly what I am saying. If one is fact checking their data against the verification system in place, which was copied from another site (usually is), what kind of check system is that?

    When we think of how our history is being made now and being documented for posterity, one has to wonder if their intent was to post it as history or fiction. Because what I'm seeing more often than not, is fiction.

    If you see a certain fact often enough on many websites, after the second or third time of reading, it becomes truth to the reader. Thank you for reading my hub and your votes.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #bravewarrior - indeed I do remember the game. And it does bring the game to mind, but to a much higher level where it can do harm as well as good. Thank you for reading my article.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

    Rachael, this sounds like a digital version of Whisper Down the Lane. Remember that game? Someone would whisper something in someone's ear and that person would whisper what they heard to the next person. This would go on until the last person was reached. They then had to repeat the statement out loud. More times than not, what got passed down was nothing like the original statement.

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 3 years ago

    So much of the info on the internet is pure garbage. Article after article is produced that relies on information already out there. Very few people have the ability, interest or time to really check out the truth of what is written. It has become relatively easy to plant lies and get people to believe. The MSM capitalizes on the laziness and gullibility of the average citizen. It is a very sad state of affairs. Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #DDE, You would think in developed countries that it would be so easy to check facts, but it really has little to do with developed or still-developing countries. And you would think that biographical info of people in the 20th and 21st century would have reasonably correct.

    It is not the information that is wrong. It is the people who are putting the information out there - either intentionally to skew facts or unintentionally because they don't want to go check their facts.

    Thank you for reading my article. I promise to get to your hubs soon and catch up on my reading. We are moving into a new house from California to Virginia. I work most of the day in the house, grab a nap, my husband is ill and requires care in his waking hours, and then I get on the computer to write at night after I get my husband settled in bed. I keep telling myself this will all slow down soon and things will get back to normal. lol Thanks for reading. I'll be by your way soon.

    Rachael.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Incredible hub! I found this hub to interesting and most useful. Your idea of thorough research sounds very helpful and it allows us to see how information can be wrongfully used.Voted up!

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

    #MsDora, thank you so much. It really is important to check out facts. 30, 40 or 50 years from now, with all the inaccurate information floating around, there's no telling what our own personal histories will read like by then.

    We can already see what biographies from the 1900s to the early 2000s look like, I just want to make a little dent in trying to get profiling writers back on the path of what they were meant to do in the first place - research, not search and write, but research over and over until they have dug so deep, their facts can go unchallenged.

    Thank you so much for reading my article. Rachael

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

    Wow! it is interesting to follow your research and learn the importance of passing on accurate information. We can all learn from you to check out every piece of information we pass on to others. Thank you and voted up!