E-Mail and Misinformation: A South African Case Study

Article excerpt

Introduction

On September 11 2001, eight hours after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, two South African brothers, Willem and Christiaan Conradie, allegedly fabricated and distributed the following e-mail message (Damon, 2001a):

Title: CNN News flash 4255/11/09/200/23h15 (sic)

Verbatim extracts: 'The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, revealed late last night that there is a strong possibility that South Africans and possibly the South African government might be involved ... Video footage from the airports revealed that at least three South Africans boarded each fatal plane. The subject is still under investigation, but sources believe that it has a strong link to the recent US boikot (sic) of the racism conference held in the South African city of Durban. CNN information sources disclose (sic) that some of the masterminds might be in hideaway in South Africa. Strong links has (sic) also been made between SA and Lybia (sic).'

It was reported by the South African (SA) newspaper media that this e-mail had significant national, international, and financial repercussions and influenced relations between the United States (US) and the SA governments at a difficult time in the history of the US. It reportedly resulted in the decline of the SA currency and had a negative effect on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange ("Bolandse broers", 2001; Coetzee, 2001; Damon, 2001a; Momberg, 2001). The Conradie brothers, allegedly responsible for the creation and dissemination of the e-mail, were charged with sabotage and fraud, but eventually all charges against them were dropped.

In this paper the details of the incident are presented in the form of a case study as reported by various SA newspapers, in particular Beeld, Burger, Business Day, Cape Argus, Cape Times, Citizen, Pretoria News, Rapport, Sowetan, and Star.

In (Barnard, De Ridder & Pretorius, 2001) we argued for the use of case studies in teaching computer ethics. Case studies present instructors with a powerful pedagogical method to, apart from sensitizing students to ethical and social concerns of computing, contribute to the development of critical reasoning and analytical skills (Gotterbarn & Riser, 1997). Furthermore, we agree with Spinello (2003, p. xiii) that 'the case study remains a popular instrument to provoke students to grapple with complicated moral problems and quandaries. Cases present such problems in a particular context ...' The hoax e-mail case study that took place in a SA context is presented in this paper together with a discussion thereof, and we contend that this multifaceted case study can be put to good use by computing instructors in the teaching of computer ethics issues, such as the power of the Internet, ethical issues of Internet conduct, law and security, to their students.

The case study is presented in the form of a timeline of the newspaper coverage in order to convey the unfolding of the sequence of events. This presentation consists of three sections. Firstly we present the factual contents of the newspaper reports and secondly we identify the various stakeholders. Thirdly the ethical, social, and legal comments of these stakeholders are also discussed as we believe that this already suggest the misinformation created by the hoax e-mail.

Subsequently we analyze the case study from various perspectives. We take a closer look at the reported perceptions of the different stakeholders and we consider various aspects of appropriate ethical analyses. We also briefly investigate why the ethical and legal perspectives and conclusions turned out to be in conflict and finally conclude with a short discussion of some recent initiatives regarding computer ethics in SA.

The Case Study

Relevant Facts Presented in the Press Coverage

Details--A timeline

In order to convey the unfolding of the sequence of events pertaining to the hoax e-mail, extracts of the press coverage are presented in chronological order. …