Fact Checking Is Dead: Mainstream Media Goes Nuts Repeating Debunked Claims By The Fake 'Inventor Of Email'

from the is-this-really-so-hard? dept

I had honestly hoped that yesterday’s story about the Huffington Post finally retracting its series of totally bogus articles (mostly written by Shiva Ayyadurai or his colleagues and friends, but a few by its actual “journalists”), pretending to argue that V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai had “invented email,” would be the end of this story. Ayyadurai has built up quite a reputation around this false claim, even though it’s been debunked over and over and over again.

Ayyadurai keeps coming back, often moving the goalposts and changing his definitions, but still ultimately flat out lying in pretending to have “invented” email. To be clear, he did no such thing. Email was in wide use at the time he supposedly wrote his software. Ayyadurai, however, has cleverly used misleading (to downright false) claims to make what appears on its face to be a credible story, fooling a number of gullible reporters. The crux of his argument revolves around the copyright registration he obtained for a software program in 1982 called EMAIL. But, as we’ve explained over and over again, a copyright is just for a specific expression (i.e., that specific program), and not for “inventing” anything. The most obvious parallel would be Microsoft, which holds a copyright on “Windows” — the operating system — but did not “invent” the idea of a graphical user interface involving “windows.”

And yet, yesterday morning, everyone began flooding me with new stories about Ayyadurai, written by clueless entertainment reporters, all because Ayyadurai apparently got married to actress Fran Drescher. The “dating Fran Drescher” story has been making the rounds for a while now, and it was so random and unrelated that we’d ignored it in previous posts, even though one part of the HuffPo series was HuffPo Live talking to Ayyadurai about Drescher, in what was an incredibly awkward exchange (note: despite pulling most of the other articles about Ayyaduria, HuffPo left this one up). In the video (which has been taken down), Ayyadurai made this incredibly awkward “introduction” to Fran, in which he repeatedly highlights that he’s just hanging out “in Malibu with Fran,” and then says for emphasis “with Fran Drescher, who I’m dating.” That leads Fran to jump into view, and the HuffPo live “reporter” Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani starts absolutely gushing over Fran. It was weird, but since it wasn’t directly related to whole lie about “inventing email,” we hadn’t mentioned it.

However, thanks to the “wedding,” now it appears that tons of mainstream press reports are writing about the wedding and repeating the totally debunked claim about Ayyadurai “inventing” email. This has resulted in many people wondering if the whole HuffPo series was deliberately ramped up prior to the “wedding” to get the mainstream press to roll with the bogus claim. It’s entirely possible, but considering that Ayyadurai has been trying to make this lie stick for years, it may just be a convenient coincidence. Either way, the mainstream press apparently is unable to do any fact checking and is repeating bogus claims as facts. Let’s highlight a few:

  • People Magazine, written by “reporter” Gabrielle Olya, not only falsely claims Ayyadurai invented email, but says he “holds the patent for creating email.” This is all kinds of wrong. He doesn’t “hold the patent for creating email.” He didn’t create email, and he only got a copyright (not a patent) on a program called EMAIL long after email had been created. The People Magazine piece links to the bogus, now retracted, HuffPo story.
  • E-Online “reporter” Mike Vulpo falsely calls Ayyadurai “the inventor of email” and also links to the bogus, now retracted HuffPo story. Even more bizarrely, Vulpo links to the now debunked Washington Post articles from a few years ago (which have a huge correction apologizing for the misreporting on Ayyadurai) saying “reports say he holds the copyright to the computer program known as “email.” Others say he indeed came up with the term “email” when he was in high school in the late 1970s. Pretty impressive, right?” I love the hedges “reports say” and “others say” while ignoring the fact that his claims to have “invented” email are debunked. And while this is slightly more accurate in noting that he has a copyright in a program called “email,” it’s not “the” computer program called EMAIL, which falsely implies it was the first one. Even more bizarrely, this same piece was reposted to “NBC Bay Area.” You would think, being in the Bay Area, that they might have reached out to folks actually in the tech industry to debunk Ayyadurai’s ridiculous claims.
  • ABC News / Good Morning America “reporter” Michael Rothman falsely claims that Ayyadurai is the “inventor of email” and makes it even more stupid by saying that Ayyadurai is “widely credited with having invented email.” This is not even remotely true. He is only credited with that by himself and a tiny group of friends. Rothman also doesn’t appear to understand even the basics of copyright by saying that Ayyadurai is “the first person to hold a copyright for ‘EMAIL.'” Again, all he did was write a program called EMAIL, long after email had been invented. It also claims that Ayyadurai “currently teaches at MIT.” A search of MIT’s staff directory does not actually return Ayyadurai as a current staff member.
  • CBS News expands their reputation for skipping over any fact checking by saying Ayyadurai “holds the patent for inventing email.” Again, basically everything in that statement is wrong. He doesn’t have a patent for inventing email. He got a copyright (very different) on a program called EMAIL. And he didn’t invent email. At least CBS News is smart enough not to put a byline on this bogus reporting, but it also quotes the Huffington Post.
  • UPI has an article that doesn’t mention Ayyadurai’s false claims in the text of the article, but does falsely call him “email creator” in the headline (which may not have been written by the reporter who wrote the article).
  • The Daily Mail is somewhat famous for its lack of reporting skills and fact checking — and the publication lives down to its reputation in an article by Chelsea White, which again repeats the myth that Ayyadurai invented email. And while it claims there’s “controversy” over the claim (there isn’t: everyone except him and his friends know he didn’t invent email) it repeats the bogus claim that he has a patent on email: “Dr. Ayyadurai – who owns the patent to email and is often credited as the inventor of the electronic mail system amid some controversy.” It also links to the Huffington Post.
  • US Magazine “reporter” Madeline Boardman more or less repeats verbatim what others are saying about Ayyadurai being “the inventor” of email and that he is “widely credited” as such.
  • Headline and Global News “reporter” Dina Exil repeatedly calls Ayyadurai the inventor of email and also claims he “is known for being the first person to invent email,” except none of that is true. He’s known for pretending that.
  • Popcrush “reporter” Michelle McGahan calls Ayyadurai “the inventor of email” and also falsely claims he “owns the patent for email.”

Now, considering that this just some random celebrity gossip, it’s not that surprising that these “entertainment reporters” didn’t bother to do any sort of fact checking. Why would they? And it’s tough to fault them for going for the easy layup on the typical “famous person weds” story. But the problem here is that Ayyadurai has been focused on using any and all press mentions as “evidence” in his bogus campaign to declare himself the inventor of email, and now he has a number of other sources to cite, even though they’re all totally wrong.

It is worth noting that not everyone fell for the spin. The LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle both focused mainly on Drescher and more or less ignored Ayyadurai’s bogus claims (though, the LA Times does say he’s at MIT, which again, does not list him as a current staff member).

The only publications I can find that really called out the bogus claims were Mashable, which noted that Drescher has married someone who “likes to claim he invented email” and Gawker, which noted that if Fran Drescher had actually read its previous articles about Ayyadurai, she might not have married him. What’s funny is that in writing our series about the Huffington Post’s bogus stories, some of our commenters insisted that this was actually proof as to why these “new media” players weren’t trustworthy compared to traditional vetted media. And yet, above we have “trusted” media like ABC and CBS repeating totally false claims, while new media players like Mashable and Gawker are debunking them.

Anyway, I’d like to think this story is now over, but somehow I get the feeling that Ayyadurai will continue to press his bogus claims again and again and again.

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Comments on “Fact Checking Is Dead: Mainstream Media Goes Nuts Repeating Debunked Claims By The Fake 'Inventor Of Email'”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

This will go on forever

somehow I get the feeling that Ayyadurai will continue to press his bogus claims again and again and again.

Yes, he will. That he’s still making this claim despite being slapped down for it years ago indicates that he will never give this up. It appears to be his sole bid at fame.

I still wonder if he’s deluded or a con man. That’s only of academic interest, though. Either way, he’s wrong and is attempting to rewrite history for his own aggrandizement.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Re: This will go on forever

No, not the legal system. It is far more fundamental than that.

It has more to do, I believe, with the way people develop (and are educated) their critical thinking skills. One dictionary defines it as, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence”

For some reason, our society does not reinforce this behavior, “particularly the informed by evidence part.” I think we could make a career out of explaining why.

But it is really frustrating, no? When people (public servants, entertainers, corporations, etc.) make claims, especially important ones, no one demands any evidence nor holds that evidence to any standards of quality or provenance.

As a result, we’ve established that argumentation by emotion or reputation is simply enough.

It makes me sad.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This will go on forever

Which is why I question whether or not he actually wrote any email program — I’ve seen no proof that he did, and given the way he lies, lies, lies, I wouldn’t put it past him to be lying about that too.

Why not? Nobody (except TD) seems to have the basic fact-checking skills or the willingness to use them. He might have made up the whole thing and trusted that the passage of all this time provides acceptable cover for his failure to produce tangible proof.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s working wonders for the 65-million-year dinosaur theory. The only way you get there is to assume that the dinosaurs all died out cataclysmically and then find a meteor strike that is at the same time geologically. There is so little evidence for it as to be laughable, but because of the repetition it’s now in everything from cartoons to Disney rides to everything else, despite actually being “voted” to be accepted (which sounds more political than scientific).

Jack says:

Re: Re: Re:

You realize that we know about these major extinction events because they are shown in the fossil and sedimentation records right? 66 Ma, 200 Ma, 251 Ma, 360-375 Ma, and 440-450 Ma are known about because of actual, physical records left behind during the events.

Also, nobody is saying that any of them were definitively caused by asteroid or comet impacts and there are tons of other hypothesis. However, the Chicxulub crater and the iridium concentration in the sediment looks pretty convincing to me as an answer for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event…

Editor-In-Chief says:

Re: Re: Re: Dating anomolies

Don’t get too caught up in “being certain” about dating periods. There is too much evidence that all of our dating techniques are too variable. Irrespective of what your “belief” is, (old earth, young earth, etc), all dating techniques rely on specific assumptions that the conditions in the past are the same as the present rates. The problem is that we do not “know” with certainty that this assumption is true. For example, methods that rely on radioactive decay rates make assumptions about original quantities. We have examples today that with known actual dates within the last century, the tested dates are millions of years old. The assumptions related to specific processes of decay have been shown to be wrong. But it has led to a better understanding of particular processes.

What’s the conclusion? Some of the dates may be quite accurate, others are completely wrong and we can not be certain which are which. We make guesses and assume they are correct. Getting your knickers in a knot over “being correct” only stifles the research and ends up ignoring various aspects of the evidence that doesn’t accord with your POV.

As has been said many elsewhere over many decades (particularly in the engineering field), models are only approximations and are only applicable in particular limited circumstances. I am rereading two books that highlight this – “Applied Circuit Theory: Matrix and Computer Methods” (P. R. Adby) and “Applied Mathematics for Engineers and Physicists” (3rd Edition) (Pipes & Harvill). Too often, we forget that our models are just that.

David Oliver Graeme Samuel Offenbach

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Dating anomolies

Actually, we are a lot more sure of our dating methods than some (creationist-inspired) critics like to make out. Any scientist working with dating knows not to trust any one method blindly – the power comes when you can get matching results from multiple sources, and when we can test methods using other, different methods. The examples you ‘quote’ are known ‘mistakes’, such as people deliberately submitting the wrong type of sample for the wrong type of test – which of course will then give the wrong result! The only people who benefit from trying to put down radiometric dating are those anti-science people who would rather either deny humans can have an effect on the planet’s climate, or who think the Earth is only 6000 years old.

Scientists don’t just randomly pick a ‘theory’ and vote on it – the agreement that a meteor strike took out the dinosaurs was based on years of painstaking searching, years of various tests, and a huge amount of actual evidence. I’ve watched the case build from a ‘maybe’ when I was a kid to ‘pretty definite’ now. Plus, the final, current view is slightly more nuanced – there were mass eruptions in India (Deccan Traps) at the same time that were already putting massive stress on the biosphere.

Again, actual scientists are well aware that models are only that – but when various models not only agree with observations but can make testable predictions, they can be viewed with some confidence. But a lot of what we are discussing here is not based ‘just’ on models.

Editor-In-Chief says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Dating anomolies

Actually, we are a lot more sure of our dating methods than some (creationist-inspired) critics like to make out.

From the various reports that I have been reading lately, I wouldn’t want to put any money on that. The ones I’m thinking about were submitted for dating with the source of the material being “hidden” if you like from those doing the dating. The samples were dated using various techniques and given specific resultant ages which were many magnitudes older than they were. The upshot is that the models related to how these samples are created and how their chemical and mineral composition changes over time have had to be updated.

Scientists don’t just randomly pick a ‘theory’ and vote on it

I would agree with you there. However, the proviso is that what they find acceptable will be based on their fundamental beliefs and their worldview and their training, not necessarily on all of the factual evidence. Try getting an established authority to change his/her mind with experimental evidence that is not in accordance with their views and you had better duck real fast. You will find yourself in the outer.

Again, actual scientists are well aware that models are only that – but when various models not only agree with observations but can make testable predictions, they can be viewed with some confidence. But a lot of what we are discussing here is not based ‘just’ on models.

Having dealt with some of these experts, I disagree that they are well aware. Highlighting inconsistencies with the models in use will generally get a defensive posture not a reasoned discussion. Scientists are just as arrogant and short-sighted as anyone else. I have been on the end of the ridicule for highlighting inconsistencies or raising experimental evidence that conflicts with the prevailing view. The pressure to ignore such evidence can be quite high and subtle threats can be made to ignore such evidence.

What I find interesting is that quite different models will make similar predictions. A fairly common misconception is that theories are reality (that is “it is fact”) when they are in fact only approximations or belief. The difficult thing to keep in mind is that mathematics which is the basis of these theories uses specific techniques to simplify the processes demanded. Differentiation and integration are where we use a technique of making something head towards 0 or infinity to simplify the processes required to solve the problems at hand. These work and work well. BUT…singularities are a simplification technique not matching reality. Many (if not all) of the science models depend on singularities (or other such entities) to make the model relatively simple. When you start believing in singularities you had better have more “proof” than your mathematics.

David Oliver Graeme Samuel Offenbach

Editor-In-Chief says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The whole point of the article is that people don’t do any fact checking, so opinions yelled long and loud enough get to be regarded as factual and “the truth”. It behooves us to do at least some fact checking, or we’ll start to believe in aliens from other dimensions, magic, black holes and the multiverse without a critical look at the facts of each.

David Oliver Graeme Samuel Offenbach

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Such as people shouting long enough that the Earth is only 6000 years old, which was disproved long ago, but some people would like to have that ‘fact’ ignored for their own superstitious reasons.

Did you see the tizzies that the creationist organisations threw when they saw the recent Cosmos series with neil de Grasse Tyson? Quiet a bit like Ayyadurai ‘complaining’ about people not buying his made-up email history, because, you know, evidence.

Editor-In-Chief says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Neil deGrasse Tyson – I’ve cringed when I’ve heard that man speak. He comes across as loopy as your rabid alien abductee at a UFO convention. I don’t know what he is like at science conferences, but he creeps me out when I’ve seen him in front of a camera. President Obama comes across as a more thoughtful and intelligent man and he’s a politician. There are some people who should just stick to scientific research and not try to present it to the public.

David Oliver Graeme Samuel Offenbach

AC says:

This is what I was talking about

A few weeks ago in the story about the horrors of “he-said she-said” journalism, I said I’d rather get both sides of a story and filter out the BS myself rather than rely on the reporter to get it right.

Add a few dozen more to the list of media outlets you should not trust to only give you the truth. These are but a few of the millions of stories written every year that would be better served by taking the ‘easy way out’ and presenting opposing views alongside the more mainstream views. This is what happens when the media gets to tell people what to think.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: This is what I was talking about

Add a few dozen more to the list of media outlets you should not trust to only give you the truth. These are but a few of the millions of stories written every year that would be better served by taking the ‘easy way out’ and presenting opposing views alongside the more mainstream views.

I’m not sure the “present both sides” approach is really going to help. Finding someone who disagrees with someone else doesn’t necessarily get you to the truth either if it’s still crappy reporting.

Anonymous Coward says:

And so the lingering death of dinosaur media continues. No fact checking means it’s not a reputable news outlet. No wonder so many people are choosing to get their news else where now. Between poor fact checking, plainly recognizable bias, and willful propaganda, the major news outlets should be bleeding readership to other sources.

I’m sure they will all be blaming the internet, which is where this sort originated to begin with. They neither got the scoop first (provided it was newsworthy) nor did they bother to check the facts. So what will happen is either they will double down in an attempt to continue to look like a reputable news source, or they will man up for an exposure. Care to take a guess about which one dominates?

sorrykb (profile) says:

There is some evidence that repeating a lie, even for the purpose of debunking it, can actually make people more likely to accept it as true. (Unfortunately, there’s no way around that, except I suppose to have an entire article with nothing but the repeated sentence: “Shiva Ayyadurai is lying about that thing.”, and usually we want a bit more context than that.)

Perhaps this has been Ayyadurai’s clever strategy all along. Or perhaps he’s just a delusional egomaniac.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

My Aunt

My Aunt worked for DARPA during the 60s and 70s. I actually asked her about this a couple days ago.
She actually got kinda pissed about it some person taking credit for all the hard work of people whom she knew and worked with back then.

This hack thinks he will be able to sell books and make money, and he is probably right. And for that reason he will never go away.

Anonymous Coward says:

... critical thinking skills....

[For some reason, our society does not reinforce this behavior, “particularly the informed by evidence part.” I think we could make a career out of explaining why.]

Welcome to Texas, where in an uncharacteristic fit of honesty and clarity the GOP education platform of 2012 stated:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority .” (2012 GOP education platform)


Although they later tried to backpedal I’m fairly sure the Texas GOP aren’t the only folks who might tend to think that same way.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: ... critical thinking skills....

On the one hand, horrifying, on the other, you’d be hard pressed to have a larger red flag than a line like that.

If someone is that against critical thinking and people being taught how to question what they are told, it’s pretty much a given that they’re up to no good and/or ‘teaching’ complete and utter rot.

theskyrider (profile) says:

I say let him take the credit for email

That way we have someone to put for all the spam that we get. If he was so smart to invent the system, he should have put safeguards in it.

Let’s say he sues Google for gMail. Wins a billion dollars, cause that’s the going rate for suing the Goog. Google gets to counter-sue for the 50 trillion or so spam e-mails it filtered out of our inboxes and leaves Shiva with $1.00.

Everybody wins.

Nicolas (profile) says:

60 Minutes whopper

60 Minutes broadcast a segment on Jan 25, 2015 called, The Cleveland Division. The report made the following assertion:

“Six Cleveland cops have been killed in the last 20 years. Danger and stress take their toll — a police officer’s life expectancy here and around the country is 10 years shorter than the average American.”

It is false that cops live 10 years shorter than the average American. In fact they may live slightly longer.

Politifact investigated the “10 years shorter” claim and debunked it in 2011.

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