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.

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.

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Dan Tynan

PC World (US online)
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