When the Web Got it Wrong

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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."

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