When computers do the news, hoaxes slip in
Lack of human involvement is why hoaxsters love Google News
When a New Jersey teenager decided to create a fictional story about being hired by one of the Internet's largest companies, he knew just where to spread the news - with the unwitting help of the company itself.
Earlier this month, a link to a press release touting 15-year-old Thomas Vendetta's new job at Google appeared on Google News, a popular site that automatically trolls 4,500 sources for their latest posts. Mr. Vendetta had simply taken advantage of a service that allows the free posting of press releases. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Vendetta had submitted his press release directly to Google News. Also, the original version mischaracterized Google News' popularity.]
The incident, while unusual, illustrates the hazards of Google's automated approach to picking news stories. And it throws an odd spotlight on an entire industry that has sprouted up to ensure that their clients' press releases pop up next to stories from major newspapers when users of Google or Yahoo go trolling for news.
Are these "aggregators" providing the news - or are they diluting it with the fakery, hucksterism, and puffery that affects the rest of the Internet?
Google News says it constantly reviews its sources of news, and it dumped the service that allowed Vendetta's posting. And Yahoo News points out that its staffers make sure the stories labeled as "news" on its homepage come from respected sources.
Still, "It's the wild, wild West, and anything can happen," says Greg Jarboe, president of SEO-PR, one of several publicity firms that helps companies get higher placement on Internet search engines. "I've got to believe that at some point and time, the sheriff's got to get hired."
In Vendetta's case, he immediately regretted his actions after his hoax was uncovered - "I AM SORRY," he declared in an online message - and the press release was taken down. But the countless other people who try to use Google News and its rival sites to their advantage - including other hoaxsters, publicists, political activists - are not so apologetic.
The lack of human involvement is a big part of why publicists and hoaxsters love Google News. Computer algorithms, not people, choose which news stories, blog entries, and press releases appear first when someone types in a term like "iPod" or "Dick Cheney."
Until recently, press releases - which turn 100 this year - depended entirely on editors and reporters to gain traction. If the press didn't pay attention, the releases, like the proverbial falling tree in the forest, didn't make a sound.
The Internet has changed that, bringing press releases to the public. Anyone with the proper fee - or, in some cases, no money at all - can use publicity services to post releases that will be listed on Google News. Plenty of people are taking advantage of this opportunity: On a recent afternoon, a Google News search for the word "technology" pulled up 162,000 items, 34,400 of which were identified as press releases.
"The fundamental shift is that the media is no longer intermediating between the reader and the news source," Mr. Jarboe says.
There's plenty at stake: Jarboe reported that one of his clients, Southwest Airlines, made $2.5 million in ticket sales with the help of press releases posted on the Internet about special offers.
And why not? Yahoo News, which allows access to both press releases and news stories, averaged more than 25 million visitors a month in 2005, according to comScore, making it the most popular news site on the Internet; Google News clocked in with nearly 8 million.
When users launch searches, the sites point them to not just news stories and press releases but also partisan political sites and other alternative sources of news.
Indeed, a study by Eric Ulken in 2004, then a graduate student at the University of Southern California, found that searches for the full names of presidential candidates on Google News that year pulled up stories from nontraditional sources 40 percent of the time.
But while press releases and satire are labeled as such, Google News doesn't give users information about the difference between the missions of, say, a respected newspaper and a website devoted to political diatribes.
Publicists and activists aren't the only people interested in using news aggregator sites to their advantage. Earlier this month, another fake press release made its way onto Google News, this one falsely saying comic actor Will Ferrell had died in a hang-glider accident.
"In the old days, to perpetrate a hoax and get it in front of the eyes of the millions of people, you had to be in the media some way or have access to a reporter. Nowadays, literally anybody can do it," says Alex Boese, author of "Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and other BS."
Google News and its rival sites offer pranksters a forum that seems legitimate, adding credibility to fake stories, Mr. Boese says.
Indeed, Internet users worldwide started buzzing in 2003 when a story appeared on Yahoo News about the arrest of a time traveler on charges of insider trading. The story was from a tabloid newspaper called the Weekly World News that is infamous for its casual relationship with truth.
Ultimately, anyone who uses the news aggregation sites should consider the advice of Thomas Vendetta, the New Jersey teenager who wasn't actually hired by Google: "You're free to believe what you want, but be careful what you do believe."