There are a couple of stories crisscrossing the InterWebs that really get under my skin. One is demonstrably false, the other is just as unlikely and even more stupid. Both point to an essential flaw of news gathering in the Internet age: Speed kills.
First: Despite what you may have read elsewhere, Saudi King Abdullah is not conspiring with Goldman Sachs to buy Facebook for $150 billion just to shut it down and prevent another Egyptian-style uprising from happening in his country. That "story" was published as "Sunday Humor" in the LOLnews section of a site called Dawn Wires.
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Granted, aside from the basic premise, the story wasn't brimming with clues that it was intended as satire. In other words, it wasn't exactly a yuckfest. There was not a single joke about Mark Zuckerberg riding a camel, despite copious opportunities. And it did quote a legit New York Times piece at length about G-Sach's cozy relationship with Facebook. Still, it ended with the disclaimer "Sunday Humor article [sic] at Dawnwires.com are meant to humor our readers. They may or may not be the truth."
Apparently, however, a number of international websites -- like the Tehran Times and the AhlulBayt News Agency -- didn't get the joke and published the story as straight news. Google employee Wael Ghonim, the man responsible for creating the Facebook page that helped galvanize the Egyptian revolt, bemoans via Twitter the number of news sources repeating this bit of nonsense as fact:
"Egyptian mainstream media is reporting this [Dawn Wires story] as real news. Some journalists need some serious training!"
Most established U.S. news sources did not fall for the Dawn Wires hoax. But many did fall for a story almost as egregious -- the rumors of a white iPad.
The blogosphere has its knickers in a twist about Apple's announcing an extremely pale version of the Jesus Tablet on Wednesday, thanks to rumors coming out of China. A few sites even claim to have photos of the white iPad, though some of them are clearly fake.
Of course, this story is so wispy most sites can't even pretend to verify it, so they rely on a trick journos have used for decades: When you want to reprint an unverified rumor without actually seeming to endorse it, pose it in the form of a question. This allows you to get the same traffic while sloughing off all responsibility for the story actually being true.
The question marks are flying fast and furious, so here's a question for you: Who gives a frak?
Seriously -- does anyone who doesn't have an Apple logo embroidered on his underwear really care whether the iPad comes in white? I do not understand the appeal.
(Also: Does anyone out there find Zach Galifianakis even remotely funny? I don't get that either. Watching "Due Date" was like having a colonoscopy sans anesthesia.)
The problem here, as I've noted in the past, is one of speed. The Internet (and by the "Internet," I mostly mean Google) rewards speed above almost everything else -- certainly above accuracy or originality. Sites get big by being first either to report or repeat, and then stay big by continuing to report/repeat at high speed, facts be damned.
If you see a juicy story -- even an outlandish one like a Saudi prince buying a social network to shut it down or Apple rumor No. 15,642 in a series -- you'd best publish it, even if all your instincts tell you it's BS. If you don't your competitors will, and they'll reap the rewards, revenues, and all that Google juice.
This is the sorry state of journalism, circa 2011. And people wonder why those of us who are still left drink so heavily.
Do you care about white iPhones and/or bearded fat "comedians" with unpronounceable last names? Weigh in below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "Facebook and iPad, leading the pack in fake Internet rumors," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.