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.

1. United Airlines bankrupted by the Web

September 2008: The most chilling Web snafus are those in which humans are barely involved. The ghost in the machine was hard at work last September, when news hit the wires United Airlines was filing for bankruptcy, causing its stock to plummet faster than a broken B737. UAL shareholders lost more than $1 billion before it was discovered that the story was nearly six years old.

"UAL files for bankruptcy" originally appeared on the Chicago Tribune's Web site in December 2002--when UAL did in fact go into Chapter 11. For reasons that are still a little foggy, a link to that story resurfaced on the Tribune's sister site, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in September 2008, where a Google search bot found it, stamped it as new, and published it on Google News. An editor at the Information Securities Advisors news agency saw the story and posted a short summary of UAL's "new" bankruptcy filing, which was picked up by Bloomberg News (see "Bloomberg whacks Steve Jobs," above) and fed directly to brokers' terminals all over Wall Street.

That's when the finger pointing started.

Bloomberg pinned the blame on Google. The Googlers said it was the Sun-Sentinel's fault, because a link to the item appeared on the site's "Popular Stories: Business" section when its bot paid the site a visit. The Tribune Company said the story had remained unchanged for nearly six years and clearly referred to events happening in 2002--something that would have been spotted if anyone had bothered to read it. But nobody did.

Welcome to the automated Web. It's blindingly fast--and, sometimes, just blind.

The Dead Pool

A brief memorial to some of the many famous people the Web has killed, if only temporarily.*

Will Ferrell (July 1967 - March 2006)

Cause of death: Freak paragliding accident spurred by phony press release

Sinbad (November 1956 - March 2007)

Cause of death: Fatal heart attack in Wikipedia

Miley Cyrus (November 1992 - September 2008)

Cause of death: Car crash; Yahoo News and Digg are spotted fleeing the accident

Paris Hilton (February 1981 - June 2007)

Cause of death: Shivved in prison fracas following arrest; fictional assailants unknown

Tila Tequila (October 1981 - April 2009)

Cause of death: Twitter

* Not to worry, all of these folks were still alive at press time.

Contributing editor Dan Tynan makes mistakes all the time, and you can find most of them on his blog, Tynan on Tech.

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Dan Tynan

PC World (US online)

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