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The Anatomy Of A Digital Hoax And The IQ Of Internet Explorer Users

Browser WarsLast week a myriad of well regarded publications such as the BBC, The Telegraph, CNN and others, ran a story on some research reportedly performed by Canadian firm ApTiquant who claimed to have tested the IQ of 101,326 internet users and correlated their IQ scores to each user’s internet browser of choice. The results of that survey purportedly showed that users of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser had IQs between 80 and 90, a good margin below average. The study has since been outed as an elaborate hoax.

As these publications with supposedly high journalistic standards facepalm with shame, it is interesting to see how the hoax was achieved.

The Press Release
As with many stories that find their way to publication, there is little investigation done by the journalist – but instead they are distilling a press release into a news item, along with a little analysis and context. The press release found its way into the inboxes of all the major news organisations around the English speaking world – but this is a service offered by a number of PR newswire providers for relatively small fees.

The Website
It is easier than ever to create a small professional looking website, and ApTiquant just made use of WordPress and customised the free Lukoo theme. The photographs of staff members and some of the content was then copied from a real market research firm called central test. The study results were produced ina PDF document that was well designed and how many statistical analyses are produced due to the possibility of showing graphs and other data in a uniform fashion across devices. The domain was a .com, which is considered to be the most professional and business-like, even if it was only registered a few weeks ago.

The Hoax
The easiest way to create a hoax is to play on the perceptions that people already have and massaging their egos. There are a huge number of market research studies performed each week on a variety of topics, and there are data mining adverts for IQ test advertising on thousands of websites across the internet – so the possibility of someone correlating IQ to technical setup is possible. Technophiles (including tech journalists) pride themselves on being ahead of the curve with technology – and it is a widely held belief around such circles that the only people still running IE are those that are not technologically minded and don;t know what a browser is, or are stuck on work PCs where IE is the only option. As performing an IQ test would be considered a personal activity, it is easy to assume that those doing so would be doing it on their home PCs – implying to some that they are not very computer literate. In reality there is little correlation between computer literacy and IQ, but superficially some perceive this to be the case.

To show statistics to support the theory that only those with below average intelligence still used Internet Explorer, when Firefox, Chrome, and Opera are all considered superior and more secure by the tech crowd – was not creating a new theory in the minds of the journalists. It was supporting a notion that whilst they may not have fully believed it, they certainly suspected it to be the case. It also massaged their collective egos as they finally had “proof” to show their friends and co-workers that they were right in their move to Firefox or Chrome – they had be proved right, and to disagree with them would mean you are of below average intelligence – how could you call their guidance into question?

The study claimed a large number of participants and drew out some interesting and varied conclusions. It was also most interestingly not favouring any particular browser, but just negative towards IE – something that meant it was unlikely to be a marketing stunt. Marketing stunts are so common that any study praising any particular product above others will automatically set off hoax alarm bells – but here whilst there was a loser, there was no clear winnner. The graphs and clear design of the study results went further to imply a real firm, or at least someone who had produced study results before.

Alarm Bells That Are Easy In Hindsight

  • The domain was only registered a few weeks prior to the publication of the results. It is unlikely that a company established in 2006 and that collected so many survey responses online would not have a website prior to starting the study.
  • AptiQuant had not published any previous studies at all. They had no history.
  • AptiQuant had no digital footprint. No-one had mentioned the company name prior to this study – something very unlikely in this constantly connected world of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
  • No-one answered the phone at the printed number – they published a study and sent it out via a PR newswire service so you would imagine that they want the press to publish the findings and that they would be happy to discuss them.
  • AptiQuant’s business address would be in the middle of an intersection in downtown Vancouver
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