How a fake Google news story spread online
It was big news in the tech world—or at least it would have been if it had been true.
Google, so the story went, had purchased ICOA, a Wi-Fi provider, for $400 million. Some news organizations pounced, with everyone from long-established outlets like The Associated Press to new-media tech blogs like TechCrunch reporting the news Monday.
But hours later, both companies would deny the story, which PR Web, a site that distributes press releases for a fee, says was planted by someone falsely claiming to represent ICOA.
Hoaxes have slipped their way into the public eye for as long as journalism has existed. But media experts say the way bad information spread so quickly casts a light on how reporting can go wrong in the fast-paced world of Web journalism.
Long gone are the days when newspapers and the evening TV news were the only game in town—when reporters had hours, if not days, to sift through a report before sharing it with the masses. In their place is an info-hungry Web that wants news now and rewards the quick with a currency of page views, Twitter links and Facebook “likes.”
“With something like this, there are a lot of blogs and websites that build their reputation on the tech world,” said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit devoted to the study and teaching of journalism.
“If Google is spending $400 million to buy something, there are people who are expected to have something to say about that and they want to be in that mix.”
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While a rush to get into that mix as quickly as possible probably played a role, McBride said there were multiple breakdowns in the Google-ICOA nonstory.
The first, obviously, was the person who—according to PR Web owners Vocus—impersonated an ICOA representative.
“Vocus reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day,” the company said in a written statement. “Even with reasonable safeguards identity theft occurs, on occasion, across all of the major wire services. We have removed the fraudulent release and turned the matter over to the proper authorities for further investigation.”
Vocus did not respond to messages Tuesday and Wednesday seeking further comment.
Financial experts say the hoax looks like an illegal effort to inflate ICOA’s meager stock. Shares, which trade for a fraction of a penny, jumped in price dramatically Monday and hundreds of millions of shares changed hands before the stock was frozen.
ICOA CEO George Strouthopoulos told Mashable, a CNN content partner, that the release apparently originated in Aruba and was sent from an e-mail account designed to look like an official ICOA address.
But the most damning gaffe may have been PR Web’s, McBride said.
Acquired by Vocus in 2006, PR Web aims to compete with the decades-old PR Newswire and other press-release outlets.
“Their quality-control process in printing out press releases obviously has some problems,” McBride said. “It’s not just that they got ‘hacked’—but that it was a pretty crappy press release.”
The release had several grammatical errors, included no contact information for representatives of Google or ICOA, and didn’t include biographical information about the companies that is typical in releases from major corporations.
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Another hoax news release makes the rounds