When the Web Got it Wrong

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.

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.

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.

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