Google News dumps partner after prank item appears

Company cuts ties with press release aggregator after partnership leads Google News to link to fake blurb.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Google's news service has cut ties with a press release aggregator after the partnership led Google News to link to a fake item written by a teenager who said he'd been hired by the search giant.

On March 10, Thomas Vendetta, a sophomore at Pitman High School in New Jersey, posted a fake press release to I-Newswire.com, a Web site that lets people submit press releases for distribution to online sites. The release said Vendetta had been hired by Google to work on fixing a security flaw in Gmail.

"The student will receive a lowered salary, which will be placed into a bank account for future education, said Google CEO Larry Page," the release read, according to the SEO Blog, which posted an excerpt from it.

Google News picked up the item from I-Newswire that same day, and two days later news aggregator site Digg.com also linked to the item, Vendetta told CNET News.com. All three news sites moved quickly to remove the item from their pages.

And last Tuesday, I-Newswire quickly yanked from its site a release that falsely reported that actor Will Ferrell was killed in a paragliding accident. It was unknown who was responsible for that item, which also appeared on Google News, according to a screenshot posted on media watchdog Web site Regrettheerror.com.

Vendetta said in a telephone interview Friday that he got the idea from blogger Richard Wiggins, who detailed in his blog on March 9 how he and two others were able to get personal "press releases" onto Google News. Wiggins said he wrote about a trip he took to Key West, Fla., and a friend wrote a "press release" wishing the Michigan State Spartans luck in an upcoming basketball tournament. The Spartans release went up on Google News within an hour.

Vendetta said he was just trying to see what kind of results he would get. "I never really meant to make (Google) look like they were putting up fake news," he said. "I don't think it affected their credibility that much."

In his personal blog, Vendetta apologizes and says that when he saw that his fake item had been picked up by Google News and Digg.com: "At that moment, I felt my stomach knot up and my heart drop."

"Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am the biggest Google fan-boy ever. I mean hell, I even dressed up as (Google co-founder) Larry Page...for Halloween," a contrite Vendetta writes. "I guess all my dreams and hopes of getting a job at Google have officially been demolished."

I-Newswire owner Eric Borgos said Monday that he has tightened the submissions process, requiring users to register before posting items and making it harder for people to post anonymously. He also said releases would be screened more carefully. "I e-mailed Google today to let them know about these changes, so hopefully they will add my site back," he wrote in an e-mail.

The ease with which fake items, or even someone's personal press release with limited news value, could end up being read by millions of Google News readers had some worried.

"I hate the idea that news releases can make it into Google News, and that any idiot (myself included), can submit one, no matter how ridiculous, ruining the integrity of one of the most popular Web sites," Nathan Weinberg wrote in a posting on his Inside Google blog.

But Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, warned against exaggerating the severity of the problem. "When you see something--wherever you found it on the Internet--you better take a look at what the source of the information is and evaluate it according to that, he said. "And if you can't find the source of information, it's probably not worth paying attention to."

The I-Newswire incidents aren't the first to cast doubt on the integrity of various free, do-it-yourself information sources online. Wiki exemplar Wikipedia saw its image tarnished twice last year when inaccurate or questionable entries came to light.

Correction: The Will Farrell prank item did appear on Google News.