Fake press release exposes real problems in online news distribution
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On Monday, a press release distributed by PRWeb bamboozled a number of news organizations, including the Associated Press, into reporting that Google was acquiring wireless Internet provider ICOA. Problem: It wasn't true.
The incident, Arik Hesseldahl writes, "bears all the markings of an attempt to 'pump and dump' the shares of a thinly traded over-the-counter stock."
Traditionally, journalists don’t bear any responsibility for the losses or gains incurred by the mistakes they make, or the false news they repeat. But it’s not exactly stretching the argument to say that when they’re less than careful, in cases like this, they can become unwilling accomplices to a serious financial crime.
And indeed, the stock surged.
Press-release distribution sites like PRWeb supposedly lift some of the burden off news organizations. The company promises potential customers, "With PRWeb, you can build a recognizable brand and attract new customers all while securing unbiased, third-party press coverage." PRWeb customers can buy a premium package that sends their releases to outlets like USA Today and The Washington Post via the Associated Press, PRWeb says.
PRWeb's owner, Vocus, has apologized for the fake ICOA release, writing, "Vocus reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day. Even with reasonable safeguards identity theft occurs, on occasion."
Search Engine Land Editor Danny Sullivan has a little fun with that statement, plucking out a dodgy PRWeb-published press release about buying Viagra online and another about vitamin injections. The problem, Sullivan writes, is distribution sites like PRWeb operate exactly as advertised. The Viagra release landed on the Houston Chronicle's website, for instance.
TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington got burned by the press release. "[B]eing wrong sucks," TechCrunch co-Editor Alexia Tsotsis wrote in an admirably emo cri de coeur Monday. "It burns and it is terrifying. It haunts you at night and doesn’t let you sleep. Eventually, if you keep at it long enough, it gives you heart disease." Tsotsis and AllThingsD co-Executive Editor Kara Swisher jousted about the error on Twitter as well. As these things usually go, the tension seemed to deflate a little by early Tuesday.
Let he/she who hasn't at some point believed bullshit cast the first stone.
— Alexia Tsotsis (@alexia) November 27, 2012
to end media wars, given no one (inc. ATD) is immune to mistakes, the old rule still rules: If your mother says she loves you, CHECK it.
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) November 27, 2012
That old-media saw is even truer now that so much of the informational economy is built on trust, a relationship bad actors can manipulate relatively easily by writing a check.
Related: Check that source! Andrew W.K. will not represent U.S. culture in the Middle East. And Kim Jong Un is not the sexiest man alive. And here's a nice profile of the professional debunkers behind Snopes.com that I assume is true.
Correction: This post originally misspelled Tsotsis' first name.