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The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus: A Virtual Artifact of Misinformation

Hana LaRock Hana LaRock
3rd May 2021
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus: A Virtual Artifact of Misinformation

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

The year was 2001. We had just made it through Y2K. Young, budding millenials like me had computer class at least once a week at school. Some of us were even lucky enough to get a computer at home, along with that mysterious, yet exciting thing called the internet.  Most of my memories from computer class consisted of playing Oregon Trail, Zoombinis, and the occasional typing course on Mavis Beacon. We’d also Google curse words after the teacher walked by, and find out what would come up under an images search without getting caught. These were the habits of the first kids to grow up with computers.

Of course there were educational aspects to our computer courses, given by teachers who were just as new to the machines and the internet as we were. From the many things that stuck out to me from that class, the one I remember most was learning about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

Traveling Back in Time: The Site

It may look a bit outdated to kids today, but at the time, it looked like any other user-created static website; a fairly convincing fundraiser page or a computer-room Geocities project. 

The webpage is green and the main text box sits on a black background, with a heading that reads, “Help Save The Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus From Extinction!” The text box has a navigation tab where you can learn more about saving the octopus, from “About” and “HELP!” to FAQs, Sightings, Media, Activities, and Links. Wrapping the text are images supporting the topic, including one of an octopus in a tree.

A supporting image within the article body

The main article is written in light green Verdana font. (A reliable font - none of that Comic Sans that would have been a dead giveaway even back then). There are links/resources at the bottom of the article, a footer mentioning the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society,” and other graphics, including a pink logo of octopus tentacles that’s used as the page’s favicon. It didn’t look too different from other sites at the time. Even Yahoo! would have had more basic graphics than this.

How the Site Became a Educational Tool for Internet Literacy

The site was used to teach young internet users the importance of “doing your research” - of understanding that anything could be found online. We learned that it was important to always check to see if something was real or not before using it as a source, believing it, or “sharing” it (though sharing back then mostly just meant telling your friends about it).

Now, the site has been preserved to look just as it did. The main page includes the tree octopus's its alleged scientific name, its life cycle, and its habitat in the “temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America.” It even offers a map that shows the octopus’ estimated range, and “spawning waters.” 

It claims that the animal is endangered due to logging, suburban encroachment, predators such as the Bald Eagle and Sasquatch, and loggers who see them as bad luck. It’s all pretty compelling: from the specific descriptions of the octopus itself, to the graphics used, resources at the bottom of the page, an RSS feed on the left side with recent, and TRUE octopus-related news. It even has a collection of real octopus references in literature, movies, and stories on the web.

The site checked off all the boxes of a legitimate website, literally. 

In fifth grade, we were given a checklist of items that could help us determine whether or not a website was real, and for all intents and purposes, there was no reason to consider this site fake. After all, how could a site with a list of ACTUAL resources NOT be real? The fact that the site was also disguised as a way to help save the octopus with things you could do to help (contacting representatives, signing petitions, building tree octopus houses, etc.), is very much comparable to other websites and organizations that work to save real endangered species.

When you do dig deeper, you learn that many of the links connect back to the site itself. Even in pre-SEO days, this was a red flag. There’s even a question in the FAQs that reads, “I am a student and my teachers are trying to convince me that tree octopuses are not real. Why are they doing this?” with the answer: “Your teachers have been misled by anti-tree-octopus propaganda from textbook publishers.” It goes on to talk about the power of the logging industry; perhaps a satirical nod to real organizations who get funding from the exact same places that are harming the cause they’re trying to protect.

The cause as a whole appealed to the emotions of any passionate fifth-grader who, back then, was also trying to convince their parents to cut up the plastic rings of soda cans to save the sea turtles. Of course they were going to believe that the tree octopus needed help.

This is precisely why the site has been used in classrooms as one of the earliest examples of internet misinformation; a virtual relic from the early days of the internet - even though this was not the site’s intended purpose. This 2006 study presented the site to children and asked them to determine whether or not it was a hoax. Not too surprising for the time, all the students included in the study fell for it. When the study was replicated in 2018, the results were surprisingly similar.

Who’s Behind the Hoax?

The site was designed by a humor writer named Lyle Zapato in 1998. Hidden throughout are links to plenty of satirical content. There’s “The Truth About Belgium”  which alleges that the country doesn’t exist, and information on joining the Sasquatch Militia. (Take that, Tree Octopus Poachers!) 

In fact, many of the articles on the site are related, which makes it all the more convincing. Zapato’s personal tagline is “Serving the paranoid since 1997” and his own profile is a parody on the legendary con-artist D.B. Cooper. It’s designed to look like a typewritten FBI file on a fugitive. Only the most careful investigators will be able to find his profile, though. (Hint: On the left side of the home page is an “About” section, and underneath is Lyle Zapato’s digital signature. Click on that, and you’ll find his bio). 

How the Site Got “Off the Endangered List”

While the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus might be endangered, the website itself is safe from “site poachers.” It has been archived in the Library of Congress under the Web Cultures Web Archive as well as the American Folklife Center, with tags that include “hoaxes,” “folklore and mythology,” as well as “internet literacy.”

I spoke to John Fenn, Head of Research and Programs at the American Folklife Center, who explained how a site like this ends up in the archives to begin with, and how the Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus Site came to be included. “For some time, staff here was collecting what might have been thought of as ‘early web culture’ - largely in the form of scam emails,” he said. “People started printing those out, collecting them as part of vernacular culture/conspiracy stuff that floats through electronic communication. The Web Archiving team created web archives for mostly campaign websites and other publicly accessible websites that had a limited time duration, capturing them for historical purposes.” 

An example of this collection is a site that was created for congressional and state-level campaigns back in the day. When a campaign is finished, the sites go away, but there still might be historical value in keeping them. So, the team worked with the Internet Archives Wayback Machine to do website crawls - taking snapshots of websites over time to capture and store them in the archives permanently.

“This informed what we did with the Web Culture Web Archive,” Fenn explained. “Folklorists - those who have taught about digital web culture, have turned to sites like Creepy Pasta, Know Your Meme, and Urban Dictionary as ‘vernacular web culture’ - websites started by communities, for communities.”

In 2014, the AFC announced that they were going to seek permission from vernacular websites to crawl their sites, and to keep them in the Archive in case the site ever goes away. The Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site was one of particular interest because it was a site that was put up to mimic real information, but was also anchored in what folklorists would refer to as “cryptozoography,” which is a pseudoscience that aims to study the existence of entities such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.

The Future of the PNW Tree Octopus

Fenn walked me through the web captures of the Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site in the Archives, showing me why it’s so important for us to hold on not just to this site, but sites like it who have also been ‘inducted’ into the archives. He said that preserving these sites are ‘labors of love’. “Commercial sites typically don’t go away, but if these sites do, then not only do the communities that use them no longer have that resource, but the cultural value or meaning-making that happens through that communication goes away, too,” he said.

Whether the site goes on to prove how vulnerable children are to false information or if it’s just a fun artifact from the retro age of the internet, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus will live on; if not in our pre-social media hearts, at least in our nation’s digital archives.

Image: Screenshot

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