Merchant Website Confesses to IE Hoax

Filed under: Publicity Stunts

Submitted by David Strom:

“Internet Explorer Users Have Lower IQs” Study Is a Hoax: Here Are Some of the Red Flags
by Tim Carmody
August 3, 2011

If a headline sounds too good to be true, think twice.

A widely circulated research study claiming to show that Internet Explorer users have lower IQs has been outed as a hoax.

An outlet calling itself the “AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting Company” threw up a phony website a month ago, copied staff photos from a French site, and issued a press release [malware-free PDF] to reporters. Major newspapers, web sites and television stations from England to the US ran the story.

If they looked at the purported data at all, they didn”™t look at it very closely. This may have been a clever hoax, but it wasn”™t a careful one.

Journalists get press releases from small research companies all the time. I”™d guessed that someone was spinning a small statistical variation into a bigger story than it probably warranted. No big deal. It happens all the time.

But that”™s not what the study claimed to show. If anything, most outlets toned it down. Only some, like The Daily Mail, relayed the full implications:

As Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter told the BBC, “these figures are implausibly low – and an insult to IE users.” To their credit, someone at The Daily Mail realized this was batty, and they quickly pulled the story from their site.

A few other red flags that should have suggested AptiQuant”™s claims were, at minimum, untrue:

AptiQuant had no footprint, no history of past studies of either intelligence or technology, despite claiming to have been a “world leader in the field of online psychometric testing” since 2006;
The assessment tool was a free online IQ test delivered through search engine ads. This might be a valid methodology for generating spammy pop-ups, but not scientific study. (Snarky aside: we”™re supposed to believe that Opera users clicking these ads have an average “superior intelligence” IQ of 125?)
AptiQuant”™s mailing address (if deliverable) would be in the middle of an intersection in downtown Vancouver.

This paragraph:

The study showed a substantial relationship between an individual”™s cognitive ability and their choice of web browser. From the test results, it is a clear indication that individuals on the lower side of the IQ scale tend to resist a change/upgrade of their browsers. This hypothesis can be extended to any software in general, however more research is needed for that, which is a potential future work as an extension to this report.

At a certain point, AptiQuant”™s release itself became irrelevant; the conclusion was repeated because other, more trusted news outlets had reported on them.

Soundbites like these spread and grow like kudzu on social media because they give our feelings a name, offering ammunition in an argument and justifying something many of us believe a version of already.

Too often, business analysts and statistics and insider rumors carry a similar currency in journalism. They often add just a thin sheen of detail and a slightly stronger claim to verification. Really, guys; it”™s just a color PDF.

Update: AptiQuant has a blog post “˜fessing up to the hoax (while claiming it was “all meant to be a lighthearted joke”) and another listing “Tell-Tale signs that should have uncovered the hoax in less than 5 minutes!“