When the Web Got it Wrong

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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.

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