Essay: How Information Gets Lost In The Translation On The Internet
Published May 24, 2014
by Rachael O'Halloran
What Will I Write Today?
I Love 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
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
1b. -Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Incorrect Census Record
2a. Efrem Jr. Wikipedia page - Incorrect Marriage Date
2b, 2c, 2d, 2e - Efrem Jr. first marriage to Emily McNair
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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?
Do Not Copy
© Rachael O'Halloran May 24, 2014
© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran