Today's Internet: All the Fake News that's Fit to Publish

On the Internet, every day is April Fools' Day. But lately it's getting much harder to separate the fake from the real.

Example du jour: Did you hear about the new screw Apple engineered that makes it impossible to disassemble its devices? No more modding, no reverse engineering, only authorized Apple techs have the secret tool that unlocks the iScrew.

Pretty typical, right? The InterWebs was abuzz with news and diagrams of Apple's latest example of geeky arrogance. The only problem with this story: It isn't true. It was a deliberate hoax, cooked up by a handful of Swedish tricksters at the design blog Day 4, just to mess with the rest of us. Per Day 4's Lukasz Lindell:

One afternoon we sketched out a screw in our 3D program, a very strange screw where the head was neither a star, tracks, pentalobe or whatever, but a unique form, also very impractical. We rendered the image, put it in an email, sent it to ourselves, took a picture of the screen with the mail and anonymously uploaded the image to the forum Reddit with the text "A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws."

Who took the bait? Just about every online news source that slavishly follows all things Apple -- which is to say just about every online news source. Apple blog Cult of Mac was first out of the chute, though it also added this disclaimer, of sorts, in paragraph five:

Keep in mind that this is an image posted to Reddit, and the only say-so we have that it comes from Apple is what the original poster has said. Also keep in mind that Apple often works on designs that never see the light of the day, and this new asymmetric screw could end up never being put into production.

Yahoo, Wired, and Macworld UK followed suit, along with a raft of blogs. Apple has released custom screws in the past, so the idea wasn't entirely implausible. But rather than wait and try to confirm the story, these sites ran with what they had (a photo posted to Reddit) and hoped to back it up later. Because if they didn't, they knew their competitors would; if the screw actually existed, they would have missed out on the story.

Once the story got to Twitter and Facebook, Lindell notes, all doubt disappeared: Apple really was trying to (ahem) screw over its customers.

This is hardly an isolated example. Late last month, an op-ed appeared in the online version of the New York Times, written by former editor Bill Keller, that expressed a grudging yet articulate defense of WikiLeaks.

The problem? Yes, that's right: Keller never wrote it. A day after the column appeared, WikiLeaks took credit for the fake.

Granted, it was an impressive hoax. Save for the fake editorial, the page (at the cleverly named opinion-nytimes.com) looked identical to the real one at nytimes.com/opinion, with live links to actual New York Times stories. The fake domain was registered using the same information as the real one. The fakers even managed to ape Keller's writing style. It was so realistic, in fact, that the New York Times' own Nick Bilton tweeted out links to it before he learned it was bogus.

What was WikiLeaks thinking? Good question. Whatever credibility WikiLeaks had is now completely shot. So when WikiLeaks reported it was under a massive DDoS attack by a group calling itself AntiLeaks earlier this week, the first thought on everyone's mind was: Yeah, right. What's your next fundraising ploy?

Gaming the media seems to have become the second-most popular attraction on the Internet besides porn. A couple of weeks before the Keller hoax, PR flackette and self-proclaimed liar Ryan Holiday revealed that he had managed to dupe reporters from the New York Times, ABC, and MSNBC into believing that he was a) a devoted collector of vinyl records, b) a long-suffering insomniac, and c) someone who got sneezed on at Burger King, respectively. None of those things were true, and all the publications Holiday tricked were forced to retract or print corrections.

Holiday says he did it to expose the flaws in a service called Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which connects journalists to sources. But it was conveniently timed to coincide with the release of his new book, which shall go unnamed here.

Why are all these incidents hitting at once? Because people are finally getting sick of the Internet news cycle, where being first is more important than being right. Unfortunately, in a world where pageviews rule and news spreads in 140-character chunks, accuracy will always be forced to the back of the bus.

Think of that when you peruse the latest iPhone 5 rumors or the headlines about Microsoft's alleged $200 Surface tablet. We are rapidly approaching a point where no one is credible and nothing can be believed. When you can no longer separate fact from fiction or reality from propaganda, the media simply becomes a megaphone for whoever can shout the loudest. That's a dangerous place to be.

Whom do you believe, and why do you believe them? Post your credible sources below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Today's Internet: All the fake news that's fit to publish," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments