When the Web Got it Wrong

Did you hear? Britney Spears had a fatal run-in with a pretzel, a guy named Homosexual ran in the Olympic 100-meter dash, and President Obama attended a Muslim academy.

What--You missed that news? Well, that might be because all those stories are untrue. But that didn't stop them from appearing on the Web, and in some cases, on reputable and popular sites.

Nobody's perfect, of course. But on the Web, imperfection can come at a high price: false news reports can torpedo a stock, harm someone's reputation, or reduce fans of a supposedly dead celebrity to tears. As news publishing systems become more automated, they're easy prey for hackers, hoaxers, and half-assed algorithms. Or they can be done in by human error, magnified a million times by the viral nature of the Net.

"Once something is online and people start finding it, it's just a matter of time before it starts spreading through links, blogs, Twitter, e-mail, or IM," says Craig Silverman, editor of Regret The Error, which tracks journalistic goofs. "The Web is a fantastic medium for making information go viral. It's also a great tool for fact checking. Unfortunately, the latter takes more time to do, and a lot of people--journalists included--link before they think to check something out."

The results can be humorous or disastrous; they can lead to fake death notices or fiscal debacles. Here are our picks for the Web's ten biggest snafus.

Note: For more on the Web's credibility problems, take a look at:

The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks

Eight Crazy E-Mail Hoaxes Millions Have Fallen For

15 Tech Myths: Busted and Confirmed

10. What are they, nuts?

February 2009: Here's the setup for a joke: What do Fox News, Attorney General Eric Holder, and a rare monkey have in common? Answer: They unwittingly combined to make the bloggers at Huffington Post look like complete fools.

The story begins with a De Brazza's guenon that escaped from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Its distinguishing characteristic: a bright blue scrotum. (Don't blame us, we're not responsible for evolution.) The primate's privates made for lively chatter on Fox News, which also reported on the AG's controversial statement that the US is "a nation of cowards" when it comes to race relations.

John Sanders, a tech reporter for WBAL-TV in Baltimore, decided to splice the two reports together and post the video on YouTube, making it appear as if Fox News commentator John Gibson was talking about the attorney general's "bright blue scrotum." That clip made it to TVNewser, where a HuffPost blogger found it and broadcast it to the world, not realizing it was just a hoax.

Huffington later apologized for getting so badly duped. The monkey was captured about 45 minutes after its escape, and Sanders lost his job over the joke gone sour.

9. Amazon is no friend of Dorothy

April 2009: Hell hath no fury like several thousand gay and lesbian people scorned, as Amazon learned earlier this month when a cataloging error made the World's Biggest Store look like the World Biggest Homophobe. Automated software used by the online retailer to make porn harder to find on its site ended up shoving a number of books on LGBT themes into the closet.

According to a report by Andrea James at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, an Amazon employee in France mistakenly tagged some 57,000 books as "adult," causing them to be removed from the site's sales rankings and search results. An Amazon spokesperson apologized for the "embarrassing and ham-fisted" mistake and says the problem is being fixed. But Amazon has yet to adequately explain why titles like Heather Has Two Mommies got delisted, while A Parents' Guide to Preventing Homosexuality did not.

8. Pop tart collides with pretzel van

June 2001, October 2001: Poor Britney Spears. The troubled pop diva was killed twice in the space of six months by hoaxes picked up by mainstream media. In the first story, Spears was killed when a car driven by former boytoy Justin Timberlake collided with a pretzel van. The story--which may have started as a "joke" news report on KEGL radio in Dallas--migrated to online message boards and was posted to a fake BBC site, prompting thousands of phone calls to Los Angeles police and fire departments.

Brit bit it again in another road mishap (this time minus the snack foods). It appeared on a bogus CNN.com page created by Michigan comic-strip artist Tim Fries, who wanted to make a point about how fake news can spread across the Web.

Fries used URL trickery to make it look as if the story was hosted by CNN, and exploited a bug in CNN's "email this" feature that caused it to be the site's "Most Popular" news story, even though it never actually appeared on CNN.com. Some 120,000 Netizens clicked on the link and mourned Spears' passing, however briefly.

Spears is hardly the only celebrity to get killed by the Web (see "The Dead Pool," below). But please, people, can't we just leave Britney alone?

7. Not Gay, just homosexual

June 2008: Tyson Gay is an Olympic class sprinter. But at conservative news site OneNewsNow, he's better known as Tyson Homosexual, thanks to a software filter that automatically replaces the word "gay" with "homosexual" in every news story. The result? Headlines like "Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials."

Tyson wasn't the only homo sapien to receive an involuntary name change; professional basketballer Rudy Gay also got the OneNewsNow treatment, leading to sentences like this one: "Memphis Grizzlies backers hit the hay hoping that Kevin Love would open things up for Rudy Homosexual in the front court." (Thanks to the Right Wing Watch blog for that juicy nugget.)

The site has since changed its auto-replace software to exclude surnames; so while you may now be Gay on OneNewsNow, you still can't be gay.

6. Meet John Kerry, metrosexual

October 2004: What is it about Fox News and personal grooming? In October 2004, chief political correspondent Carl Cameron posted a fictional news item on FoxNews.com in which then-presidential contender John Kerry is quoted as boasting about being a "metrosexual" who loves manicures.

After other reporters began asking where this story came from, the site pulled the item and posted the following retraction:

"Earlier Friday, FOXNews.com posted an item purporting to contain quotations from Kerry. The item was based on a reporter's partial script that had been written in jest and should not have been posted or broadcast. We regret the error, which occurred because of fatigue and bad judgment, not malice."

A Fox spokesperson noted those responsible had been "reprimanded," but never explained how the report made it onto the site or what punishment Cameron received. As Media Matters reported, Fox commentators brought up Kerry's predebate manicure five times that same night. Apparently, Cameron wasn't the only one suffering from fatigue, bad judgment, or poor cuticle management.

5. The greatest soccer player who never was

January 2009: Soccer fans still mourn the loss of Moldovan legend Masal Bugduv. The 16-year-old prodigy was clearly destined for greatness; he even made the London Times' list of 50 fastest rising stars.

There's just one problem: Bugduv doesn't exist. As Slate's Brian Phillips explains, a determined hoaxer exploited the "trickle up nature of information flow" on the Web to create the fictional phenom:

"...the player had originated in a series of fake AP stories posted to forums and blog comment sections, as if they'd been copied and pasted there.... The blog comments fooled the blogs, the blogs fooled the news sites, and the news sites fooled the magazines. When the Times came to Bugduv, his story was resting on a pedestal of widespread acceptance."

The Times quietly replaced Bugduv on its list with an actual player, but by then it was too late. Notes Phillips: "In the end, the hoax laid bare what we had all dimly suspected: Sometimes, sportswriters do not know what they are talking about."

4. All the news that's fit to hack

September 2001: Just how hard is it to break into an online news site and create havoc? White Hat hacker R. Adrián Lamo decided to find out. Using just a Web browser, Lamo gained access to Yahoo's internal news servers and altered a Reuters story about Dmitry Skylarov, a Russian programmer accused of violating the DMCA.

It wasn't until Lamo contacted Web site Security Focus, which in turn contacted Yahoo (at Lamo's request), that his purple prose came to light:

"The modified story warned sardonically that Skylarov's work raised 'the haunting specter of inner-city minorities with unrestricted access to literature, and through literature, hope.'... The text went on to report that Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference about the case before 'cheering hordes', and incorrectly quoted Ashcroft as saying, 'They shall not overcome. Whoever told them that the truth shall set them free was obviously and grossly unfamiliar with federal law.'"

Yahoo later said it fixed the errors that allowed Lamo to access its news feed. When asked about his 8-year-old hack, Lamo said

"I deliberately chose an older news story to edit, which had scrolled off the front page, as a courtesy to Yahoo!. ...[My] actions required no password, just some very detailed analysis of Yahoo! internal URL structure and hostnames."

A few months later Lamo broke into the New York Times' internal computer network, where he added his name to the paper's confidential database of experts. That deed earned him a hefty fine and three years' probation.

3. Obama's radical Muslim education

January 2007: On Jan 17, 2007, Insight Magazine--a Web site owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon--published a story claiming that researchers working for Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign had discovered that then-Senator Obama was educated at a madrassa in Indonesia.

The story, which listed no author and named no sources, was spread far and wide by talk radio and Fox News, only to be debunked later by CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and others. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns denounced the story, and Fox issued a tepid retraction.

Insight's defense? It didn't actually say Obama had attended a madrassa, it merely claimed someone else said it. But the story still managed to spark the myth Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, which the echo chamber happily repeated.

After more than 20 years of occasionally dubious reporting, Insight Magazine closed up shop in May 2008. But the myth remains. According to a Pew Research Center survey published this month, one out of ten Americans still believes Obama is a Muslim; for evangelicals and Republicans, the number is closer to one out of five.

2. Bloomberg whacks Steve Jobs

August 2008: Most people don't get to read their own obituaries. But for Steve Jobs, the normal rules just don't apply. Like last August, when Bloomberg News prematurely published a 17-page obit for the Apple icon.

Apparently, a reporter who was updating Jobs' memorial hit the "publish" button by accident. Bloomberg caught the mistake within minutes, though not before catty gossip site Gawker captured it for posterity.

But the Web wasn't done with Jobs yet. A few months later a "citizen journalist" on CNN's iReport site wrote a fake story claiming Jobs had had a heart attack and was rushed to the emergency room. The only actual heart problems were suffered by Apple shareholders, who saw their portfolios plummet by more than 10 percent on the faux news. The SEC investigated whether the "citizen journalist"--apparently a teenager using the name Johntw--planted the story to manipulate Apple's share price, but the agency concluded "Johntw" was just being a jerk.

1. United Airlines bankrupted by the Web

September 2008: The most chilling Web snafus are those in which humans are barely involved. The ghost in the machine was hard at work last September, when news hit the wires United Airlines was filing for bankruptcy, causing its stock to plummet faster than a broken B737. UAL shareholders lost more than $1 billion before it was discovered that the story was nearly six years old.

"UAL files for bankruptcy" originally appeared on the Chicago Tribune's Web site in December 2002--when UAL did in fact go into Chapter 11. For reasons that are still a little foggy, a link to that story resurfaced on the Tribune's sister site, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in September 2008, where a Google search bot found it, stamped it as new, and published it on Google News. An editor at the Information Securities Advisors news agency saw the story and posted a short summary of UAL's "new" bankruptcy filing, which was picked up by Bloomberg News (see "Bloomberg whacks Steve Jobs," above) and fed directly to brokers' terminals all over Wall Street.

That's when the finger pointing started.

Bloomberg pinned the blame on Google. The Googlers said it was the Sun-Sentinel's fault, because a link to the item appeared on the site's "Popular Stories: Business" section when its bot paid the site a visit. The Tribune Company said the story had remained unchanged for nearly six years and clearly referred to events happening in 2002--something that would have been spotted if anyone had bothered to read it. But nobody did.

Welcome to the automated Web. It's blindingly fast--and, sometimes, just blind.

The Dead Pool

A brief memorial to some of the many famous people the Web has killed, if only temporarily.*

Will Ferrell (July 1967 - March 2006)

Cause of death: Freak paragliding accident spurred by phony press release

Sinbad (November 1956 - March 2007)

Cause of death: Fatal heart attack in Wikipedia

Miley Cyrus (November 1992 - September 2008)

Cause of death: Car crash; Yahoo News and Digg are spotted fleeing the accident

Paris Hilton (February 1981 - June 2007)

Cause of death: Shivved in prison fracas following arrest; fictional assailants unknown

Tila Tequila (October 1981 - April 2009)

Cause of death: Twitter

* Not to worry, all of these folks were still alive at press time.

Contributing editor Dan Tynan makes mistakes all the time, and you can find most of them on his blog, Tynan on Tech.

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