A consulting company named AptiQuant published an intriguing press release late last week. "Is Internet Explorer For The Dumb? A New Study Suggests Exactly That" inspired many legitimate news organizations to report the story just as the press release suggested, often decorated with comments along the lines of, "Is anyone really surprised?" The online community often perceives Internet Explorer users as less technologically adept than those who use more recently launched browsers, so Firefox and Chrome fans exchanged cyber high-fives about this apparent validation.

But the joke turned out to be on those who repeated the story without first looking into AptiQuant. After BBC News published its initial report (now removed from its Web site), some readers pointed out that the AptiQuant domain had only been registered on July 14. Further investigation showed that much of the material on the AptiQuant site, including employee photos, had been stolen from Central Test, a French company that administers personality and aptitude tests.

Apparently, AptiQuant was created for the sole purpose of publishing this false report, a fact the site now confirms. "Ok, now that the cat is out of the bag, I agree that this study was a total hoax," a recent post to the site admitted, "But what's really funny is that everybody took the report so seriously."

Computer programmer Tarandeep Gill, creator of a comparison shopping web site, has claimed responsibility for the hoax. The motivation: when trying to add features to the site, Gill uncovered incompatibilities with IE6 and became annoyed. Setting up the hoax, he claims, was not only funny but also served a purpose: "to create awareness about the incompatibilities of IE6 and how it is pulling back innovation." (Of course, the fact that uncovering the prank will direct more traffic to his real site—which is now mentioned all over AptiQuant's pages—is entirely incidental.)

The hoax may have been light-hearted, but it raises a serious point: No matter how fact-oriented we think we are, we only really question reports that challenge our preconceived notions. Because the false finding reinforced my own anti-IE prejudice, I confess that I accepted it without a doubt. (Disclaimer: I do know intelligent people who use Internet Explorer, but because I only ever used it in those halcyon days before I knew what a browser was*, I associate it with lack of computer knowledge.) As Gill said in an article posted to the AptiQuant web site, "I guess what I said was exactly what people wanted to hear."

*I used to think that the IE icon was "the internet button."

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons