Huffington Post Doubles Down, Has MIT Professor Spread Blatant Falsehoods About Creation Of Email

from the really-now? dept

We already covered the bizarre situation in which one of the biggest names in PR has “teamed up” with the Huffington Post to write an entirely bogus “series” of stories on the “history of email” that is nothing more than a PR campaign for a liar. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai claims to have invented email. He did not. We went into great detail on this on Tuesday, so you can check out the history there.

Despite my requests to both Huffington Post and Larry Weber (the PR guy who kicked off the “series”), neither has responded and explained if any money is changing hands here. That means either it is, and Huffington Post is violating FTC rules concerning “paid” posts, or Huffington Post just made it clear that it is willing to post pure bullshit without the slightest bit of fact checking. I’m still not sure which is worse.

Instead, it appears that they’ve gone forward and posted the latest in the series. Incredibly, they’ve convinced an MIT professor, Deborah Nightingale, to destroy her own credibility by writing a piece that is supposedly “debunking” the “myths” that everyone puts forth in proving that Ayyadurai is simply wrong in claiming to have invented email. Except the “myths” are not myths, and her debunking does not debunk anything. It just repeats the same false claims (using nearly identical language) as Ayyadurai and his friends in their original posts.

Nightingale cherry picks a few things, presents them in a misleading way, repeats the entirely bogus story about Dave Crocker claiming interoffice email was impossible (which is not at all what he actually said), and then just repeats (almost word for word) Ayyadurai’s previously disproven claims. It’s clear that the only way they think they can win this debate is to redefine what email is in such a narrow way to pretend that Ayyadurai’s specific implementation was the “invention” of email. It’s not. It’s ridiculous. Here’s their definition, according to Nightingale, though more or less repeated word for word by the other posts in the series.

“first full-scale electronic replication of the interoffice mail system consisting of the now-familiar components of email: Inbox, Outbox, Folders, Attachments, Memo, Address Book, Forwarding, Composing, etc.,”

Again, as noted in our post yesterday, nearly all of that was done previously by others (often many years earlier). But Ayyadurai, Weber and Nightingale are pretending that none of that was truly email because it didn’t have every single component that Ayyadurai’s app had. That’s ridiculous. Email is an ever-evolving set of standards. You could just as easily make an equally ridiculous claim that “email” didn’t really exist until it also had color highlighting. After all, the offline interoffice mail system had the ability to highlight with colored pens, and email didn’t include color highlighting until years later. But, of course, that’s ridiculous, because color highlighting doesn’t make email.

Email was very much in place long before Ayyadurai’s app. It included all the basic concepts of email, including an inbox, folders, to:, from:, subject, cc:, bcc:, etc. Ayyadurai may have written a wonderful new form of electronic messaging, but he didn’t “invent” email.

The thing that’s amazing here is that Ayyadurai is using one of the oldest trolling tricks in the book, in pretending that everything that he is actually doing is actually being done nefariously against him. Almost everything that he claims people are doing to him are things that he is actually doing himself:

He claims that the attacks are because Raytheon/BBN’s entire “identity” is built off of its fake claim to have invented email.

First off, that’s not true. Raytheon is a giant multi-billion defense contractor. It doesn’t care about who invented email. BBN has a long and well-documented history of a whole bunch of innovations concerning the internet and networked computing. If it didn’t invent email (and no one there really claims to have “invented” email anyway — they say, rightly, that it was a group evolution by a bunch of folks, some at BBN and some elsewhere), its legacy as the core innovators of the internet would still be in place. Instead, the only one whose entire “identity” is built off a fake claim to have invented email is… Ayyadurai. Here’s his Twitter page:

His entire Twitter stream is about him claiming to have invented email. Tweet after tweet after tweet are just about those claims.

He has an entire website called “the inventor of email.” He’s written a book about email, which claims on the front page that he’s “the inventor of email”:

Oh, and notice the “blurb” on the cover of the book? It’s from Larry Weber. Gee…

He claims that others “fabricated a controversy” to deny him his rightful place in history

The only fabricated controversy is by him. There is no controversy. He didn’t invent email. But he sure trades off of the claim that big powerful interests are trying to silence him.

He claims that those of us debunking his bogus claim refused to look at the primary documents

This is untrue. We went through the documents in detail and explained why they actually debunk Ayyadurai’s own claims. Their “smoking gun” is a paper by David Crocker at RAND from December 1977, in which they falsely claim he said that an interoffice email system was impossible. Yet they never point you to the paper. go read it here. Go read the primary documentation and you’ll see that not only did Ayyadurai and his friends/colleagues totally take Crocker out of context, they pulled two totally unrelated sentences from different parts of the report, excised from context, to pretend he said something he did not. Read the whole report and you’ll actually see that not only were email systems quite common, lots of folks were developing all sorts of components of an electronic interoffice mail system. Crocker’s paper is about one such version, but notes that many others are doing the same, and it includes screenshots of messages that clearly look like email today.

He claims that everyone is trying to rewrite history

He and his friends are the only ones doing so. The history is clear. There is no controversy other than the one that he’s manufacturing.

What’s bizarre is that the Huffington Post is a willing accomplice in perpetuating this myth — and why the company won’t comment on this, and the nature of its relationship with Weber and Ayyadurai. Again, either the Huffington Post is running a sponsored series without disclosing it (in violation of FTC rules) or it has been totally duped. I’ve heard from some folks suggesting that this is just the “blogging” side of Huffington Post, where there are no real editorial controls, but that doesn’t explain HuffPost Live’s multiple segments on this issue, including its bizarre interview with Ayyadurai. That is a journalistic endeavor (or purports to be) that appears to have been totally duped. The series still promises one more article, by Ayyadurai himself, and we expect more of the same rewriting of history, using the exact same phraseology. The question is whether or not Huffington Post will recognize that it’s being used as part of an effort to drum up a faux controversy over something that is blatantly untrue.

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Comments on “Huffington Post Doubles Down, Has MIT Professor Spread Blatant Falsehoods About Creation Of Email”

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Thomas Haigh (user link) says:

Keep up the good work

As a professional historian focused on the history of information technology I have been maintaining a detailed summary and evaluation of Ayyadurai’s changing claims at SIGCIS is the scholarly organization (or, as Ayyadurai puts it, “cabal”) for historians of information technology. My analysis gives a full sense of why Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented email is deeply misleading. As Mike’s earlier story pointed out, the difference between patent and copyright is crucial.

BTW, it is surprising to see the “research” published on Huffington Post under the name of Deborah J. Nightingale when it is in large part a variation on a document (“False Claims About Email”) previously published without any reference to her on Ayyadurai’s website and in his book.


Re: It gets even better.

Plus, to top it all off they used Chomsky as their authority to appeal to.

While he’s well known for his work contributing to computer science, he’s not actually a CS professor. He’s also a raving crackpot. Describing him as lunatic fringe may be putting it mildly. If you actually know about him, he’s the LAST person you would trust to say anything outside of his speciality (which is linguistics).

They probably threw him in there as an “MIT professor” to try and diffuse the fact that real computer scientists at that institute did earlier work on email.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: It gets even better.

w-e-l-l, i would certainly put this in the category of ‘smart guy talks out his butt about shit he doesn’t know about’, but to say chomsky is some sort of ‘fringe’ nutball shows how little YOU know about him…

i have no doubt he has been hoodwinked by a charlatan with semi-plausible -and semi-real- claims, AND he has ZERO clue about any of the attendant technical issues; BUT it is actually kind of instructive in terms of the manner he typically analyzes contemporary media and shows how IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE CONTEXT, you don’t know what you don’t know…
that is his problem in this situation…

again, i have problems with chomsky’s approach on a lot of REAL conspiracies in our his story (he essentially either dismisses then outright as impossible, or dismisses them as having no significant impact on his story), BUT i would -as a matter of general principle- subscribe to his take on most anything he puts some thought to analyzing…

Trevor says:

I can do it, too!

Take this Tweet posted 9/2/2014 at 8:44 P.M. by Mr. Ayyadurai:

Here’s the text:

“VA Shiva Ayyadurai
The 5 LIES ABOUT EMAIL’S HISTORY Dr. Debbie Nighingale Exposes Raytheon/BBN… and who invented email!”

Using Mr. Ayyadyrai and Huffington Post’s editing standards, Mr. Ayyadyrai just admitted to lying about inventing email!

Just look at his Tweet posted at 8:44 p.m. on 9/2/2014, which says “VA Shiva Ayyadurai … LIES ABOUT … who invented email!…”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Establishing a base for a wiki fraud?

Looks like one of Ayyadurai’s supporters tried to ‘fix’ the wikipedia entry, and even tried to claim that their ‘fixes’ deserved to stay in place while the matter was discussed. Thankfully it seems the other editors shot down that idea pretty quickly, and are striving to cover the controversy over the matter in a neutral matter.

Also sounds like it’s not the first time such ‘fixing’ has occurred, both on the email entry and the one for Ayyadurai himself. Someone’s certainly been trying to control what’s presented, and how it’s presented it seems, contrary to how wikipedia articles are supposed to work.

DogBreath says:

I can clear all of this confusion up with a simple history lesson

But Ayyadurai, Weber and Nightingale are pretending that none of that was truly email because it didn’t have every single component that Ayyadurai’s app had. That’s ridiculous. Email is an ever-evolving set of standards. You could just as easily make an equally ridiculous claim that “email” didn’t really exist until it also had color highlighting.

If that is the case, then I nominate as the “real” inventor of email: Gary Thuerk, because as everyone knows “you can’t have email without SPAM”

I did my research, so when do I start my new job at Huffington Post???

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: I can clear all of this confusion up with a simple history lesson

First, the correct term is “spam” — never “SPAM”, as that is a product of the Hormel Corporation.

Second, at the time of that incident, we hadn’t yet coined the slang term “spam”; several synonyms for it were in use, most notably “mass mail abuse”. It took us years to figure out that the problem wasn’t going to go away quite so easily and so perhaps we might want a handy term to refer to it by.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Nightingale's paper is hilarious

In addition to the criticisms of it in this article, there is one point she makes that actually made me laugh out loud: Email couldn’t have existing prior to 1978 because the term “email” did not exist prior to 1978.

That’s funny all by itself, but when you combine it with her legalistic gymnastics in the piece itself (she effectively redefines “email” as purely “what Ayyadurai did”) in a misguided attempt to make it true by definition) the result is a pure belly laugh.

Tom Betz (profile) says:

Re: Nightingale's paper is hilarious

The word “email” certainly did exist before 1978. It meant “to put on chain mail armor”. The original term for electronic mail was “e-mail”.

“The first use of e-mail was in 1971 on the ARPANET (see also “Internet,” p. 34). It was developed by Ray Tomlinson (b. 1941).”

For some reason, the hyphen was lost during the 80’s; but I still can’t help typing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nightingale and Ayyadurai

There are other connections between Nightingale and Ayyadurai. A recent press release from International Center for Integrative Systems (Ayyadurai is founder and executive director of this) touts a paper on alternative Indian medicine by Ayyadurai (of course). The release has a blurb by Deborah Nightingale that begins “This is a seminal paper…” Going to the paper itself, Ayyadurai lists an affiliation with the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center at MIT, which Nightingale is (according to her linking account) or was (according to the press release) the director of.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: MIT has egg on their face

That’s right. IIRC, it was part of Unix when Unix was first created in 1969. Also, I cut my teeth on RSTS, created in 1970, that had its own full-fledged email system that included pretty much all of the “advanced” features that Ayyadurai included in his project.

The really sad thing about this whole debacle is that what Ayyadurai did was actually an accomplishment. His name should be mentioned in the history of the industry. Just not as the “inventor of email” because that’s provably, stupidly, wildly incorrect.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You know, this profoundly idiotic comment gets repeated a lot in feeble and misguided attempts by ignorant people to blame Al Gore for claiming credit…which he didn’t. I suggest engaging in some remedial education here:

and here:

R. Bohn says:

HuffPo has been little more than gossip for years.

They now have a mealy-mouthed amendment, saying that “electronic messaging” existed before 1978 – going all the way back to the telegraph! Their comments also appear to be blocked.
Great find from 1972 MIT. I dropped out of college in 1973 and worked for a time sharing company that had, running for several years, a full email system, linking customers and employees around the country. To: From: Cc: (probably bcc, I don’t remember), forwarding, reply, time stamps, passwords, etc. I don’t recall if we had attachments. It’s a shame to see an MIT prof put her name on a ghost-written piece of nonsense like this. And, this series would seem to violate FCC rules about comments, except that they are not “reviewing a product.”

Vidiot (profile) says:

His book cover is accurate

Don’t forget that by titling his computer program “EMAIL”, he can rightly claim to have “…invented EMAIL”. Meaning that one application.

And now, dear friends, I’ll return to authoring a grocery-list app called “FOOD”. And when I’m done, you may all worship me, saying, “You invented FOOD.” And you’ll be right!

Zonker says:

No, *I* invented email in 1993 when I made my first email account. I put my claim in my resume and all over my website, so you know it’s true! No email existed before then and only those who conspire to take credit for my invention claim otherwise.

Once my PR company repeats my claims on FOX News enough times, the record will be clear that I invented email… and the internet! Al Gore can’t take that title away from me!

(They’re coming to take me away, Ha-haaa!)

DB (profile) says:

Hmmm, looking at
I don’t see Deborah Nightingale listed.

There appear to be a half-dozen “directors” listed. You can apparently be a “director” without being MIT faculty, just MIT affiliated.

Her info page also lists her as being (present tense) a co-director of the Lean Advancement Initiative. The info page lists that consortium as being inactive as of 2012.

She also claims to be affiliated with MIT’s Aero-Astro program. Yet her name doesn’t appear on the faculty list.

Apart from her self-written bio (hmmm, a theme), where is there evidence of what she has actually done?

John85851 (profile) says:

More BS stories that fooled your friends

Why does anyone believe anything that comes from the Huffington Post? Okay, I may be exaggerating, but has run at least 25 articles called “BS News Stories That Fooled Your Friends”. And almost every topic on almost every one of their articles mentions how the Huffington Post either originated the story or how their “reporters” fell for the lack of sources and published the story anyway. Because, obviously, there’s no room for journalistic rules like “verify your sources” when sites are fighting to get the most clicks and views.

Personally, I think HuffPo runs stories like this just so they can get attention for printing inaccurate information. After all, the average person isn’t going to go look for the correct history or even go looking for verifiable sources. And see, it worked- look how much coverage you gave them for their latest BS story. 😉

DB (profile) says:

Oh, a little more from Google on Nightingale:

Apparently she is currently an independent contractor, getting a $39K contract from the Dept of Veteran Affairs as a for-profit ‘SBA Certified Small Disadvantaged Business’ — definitely not through MIT.

DB (profile) says:

More on Nightengale — she is (was?) essentially a lecturer at MIT, not a tenured or tenure-track professor. She is a “Professor of Practice” (although I thought that MIT didn’t have that position).

She co-lectured a course in 2004, probably with the title ‘lecturer’. The ‘Professor of Practice’ title appears to have been added when she taught MIT-branded summer weekend courses 2010 and 2012.

Apart from a book, which seems to have been written primarily to promote her consulting business, the is little in the way of academic activity.

Thomas Haigh (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nightingale is NOT an MIT faculty member then, just part of the instructional staff. MIT defines “professor of the practice” as an alternative and rather pretentious way to say “adjunct professor.” That’s a someone on a temporary contract, typically there a part timer to teach a class or two a year, who is not a permanent part of the institution.

I became familiar with these definitions back in 2012 when Ayyadurai claimed to be an MIT faculty member but in reality was just a visiting lecturer. If her claim in the article to have “served on the faculty in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division for over 17 year” is based on a position as “Professor of the Practice” it is equally bogus. And that position is all she mentions in the online bio linked from the article.

2.3.2 of the MIT Polices and Procedures states “Appointments to the rank of “Adjunct Professor of _____” and “Professor of the Practice of _____” are equivalent.” The same section states “An appointment as an adjunct professor or professor of the practice carries no implication of academic tenure or of membership on the Faculty.”

Confirming this, 2.1 of the MIT Policies and Procedures states that “Appointments to faculty positions are made at the following ranks: assistant professor, associate professor without tenure, associate professor with tenure, and professor.” Only people with those titles are faculty members. Apparently that doesn’t include Nightingale.

cc young (profile) says:

Huffpost fabricated news

as a progressive-liberal, have been (lightly) following huffpost since its inception. it’s a corporate-liberal rag that has no hesitation in selling its soul.

for years huffpo has been a microsoft proxy, for example, reporting as facts any astro-turf anti-google campaigns as if fact, while ignoring ms being caught with hands in the cookie jar. they have always pandered to bill gates as if he were an ethical and wise person.

of course, one of ms lead attorneys was on the huffpost board, so I don’t know if this influence was paid for with cash or buddy-buddy.

I emailed huffpo several times on this relationship, never receiving a reply. I posted to corrections to comments, to the best of my recollection several of these comments being deleted.

of course, John Oliver nails it:

Anonymous Coward says:

So the more I read through all the articles from HuffPo and the ones cited in the Wikipedia entries for Ayyadurai and email, Ayyadurai and his supporters are basically arguing a no true Scotsman. The electronic mail systems that preceded his system weren’t “email” to him, so they don’t count.

He also keeps using the comparison of his system to a physical world inter-office mail system, but that doesn’t actually mean anything unless you solely define email as an electronic analog of a physical world inter-office mail system.

Saying he “invented” email is equivalent to saying that Columbus “discovered” America or Steve Jobs and Apple “invented” smartphones, touch screens, and tablets. Doing something of historic note in the field is not the same as being the first or most important person to have contributed to it.

Editor-In-Chief says:

Had never heard of the little fellow till now...

30 years and this fellow has only just appeared on my radar. Cannot say he has made any impact regardless of what his own opinion might be.

Appears to me as if he is simply a fame-hungry little man. May have done something significant in one small area at one time, but has had no impact since. I think you will find that Mathai Joseph, V.R. Prasad and N. Natarajan have had more impact than this fellow has. Even David Holzgang is more familiar to me.

His attitude could be likened to someone saying Bill Gates was the original creator of multi-user multi-tasking operating systems and leaving out the history of Multics, Unix, TOPS-10, TOPS-20, etc.

David Oliver Graeme Samuel Offenbach

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, it actually works quite often. Not always, but often enough that it’s a common tactic. You see it all the time in politics and other criminal endeavors: when you know something scandalous is going to be revealed about you, you get ahead of the game and accuse your opponent of the same scandalous thing. Even if people don’t forget that you’ve done the scandalous thing as well, at least their attention is split so it’s not entirely on you.

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