The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, June 20, 2017 1:00 am

False claims lead to real problems

Conspiracy theory shuts down port

FRANK GRAY | For The Journal Gazette

A couple of years ago, when the water in Fort Wayne started to taste funky as spring arrived and leaves and limbs were washed into the river, some people complained.

The water department assured everyone that the water was safe, it was tested several times a day, and it was using extra chlorine and charcoal filtering to minimize the earthy taste.

But not everyone was satisfied. Some went onto an internet site and, implying the water here wasn't safe, demanded an investigation.

That's what you can do with the internet, synthesize crises and send some people into a panic.

Last week, someone from Fort Wayne did the same thing again.

A man going by George Webb went onto a website he runs and claimed that a source had told him there was a dirty bomb planted in a major American city, possibly Memphis. He said the source had gotten his information from other “sources.”

Before long the story changed to say there was a dirty bomb on a ship called the Memphis Maersk, a container ship headed for Charleston, South Carolina. That information ended up on another conspiracy channel on YouTube.

In the end, Webb, whose actual name is George Sweigert and who graduated from North Side High School in 1978, had managed to get the terminal evacuated where the container ship was located.

The Coast Guard inspected the ship and found nothing. It was another synthetic crisis. But it shows you what the internet can be used for.

That upsets a man named David Sweigert, who happens to be “George Webb's” brother and who graduated from North Side in 1977.

It's the result of what Sweigert, who is involved in infrastructure protection and computer security, says can happen when the internet is what he calls “weaponized.”

Crowdsourcing sites that operate like games get fans to go online and solve mysteries and conspiracy theories, David Sweigert said in a paper he prepared after the event.

Participants are told of a threat, creating a call to action, and soon fans start calling authorities about the imminent threat, he said.

In the case of Charleston, the seaport had to be shut down.

You can call it a game, but when so-called journalists conducting what they call independent investigations get their listeners worked up, it can lead to player hysteria, angst and fear. David Sweigert compared the possible public reaction to the War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast in the 1930s, when some listeners were convinced the planet was being invaded by Mars.

The only difference now is that the broadcasts take place on the internet, and baseless attacks and public relations campaigns against public officials and infrastructure operators can develop.

The whole incident is troubling to him because it was all orchestrated, in part, by his brother.

What's at stake? False internet claims can incite violence, he said, against banks, utilities, dams, hospitals, name it.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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