Welcome to the era of gullibility 2.0

Last week's fake iPhone news was a wake-up call for a public now looking to the Web for scoops, leaks and gossip.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
On Wednesday, the digital age may have had its "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment.

Apple's stock took a tumble when popular tech blog Engadget posted a supposed "internal memo" indicating a significant delay in the releases of the much-anticipated iPhone handheld device and the Leopard operating system. The memo was a fake; Engadget had been fooled.

The blog later called the original post a "false alarm," and Apple's stock rebounded--though not to its preplunge levels. As TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington said in a post Thursday evening, "Many investors had lost a staggering amount of money in the amount of time it takes to brush your teeth."

For millions of online news junkies, gadget enthusiasts, and Apple stockholders, "Applegate" has become a reminder of a very old lesson: Don't believe everything you read.

The publication of erroneous rumors, incorrect facts--Dewey didn't actually defeat Truman, as we all know--and pranks that were taken too seriously (War of the Worlds, anyone?) has plagued the media industry since its earliest days. It's no secret, however, that the Internet and blogging have changed the landscape entirely.

With push-button publishing, publications no longer have a day's wait to break news--a two-minute call to confirm a scoop can mean that another site breaks the news first. With the availability of so much information, and the ability to immediately connect with so many people and then broadcast a message, the online world has also proven to be a formidable engine for rumors. Some are true. Some aren't. Either way, the Web audience's appetite for gossip seems inexhaustible.

"I've always been one to post rumors," said Brian Lam, editor of Gizmodo, a rival blog to Engadget. "Even the really gnarly rumors. I love them."

Add to that a company like Apple--notoriously secretive and holding a loyal band of followers eager to snap up any leaked details, from patent filings to fuzzy camera phone pictures of what may or may not be the next iteration of the iPod. "The important thing on the juicy stories is to be extremely cautious," Lam said, "especially (with) Apple, because those guys are crazy. The fanboys are crazy."

That's a lesson Lam learned in December when he wrote a post promising details about the iPhone. Lam wasn't referring to Apple's iPhone (rather, to the Cisco Systems phone by the same name) but fans considered the prank to be cruel and unusual--and Gizmodo got plenty of comments and e-mails from dissatisfied readers.

In retrospect, Lam said, things would've been done a little differently. "I wouldn't have tagged (the post with) 'Apple' in the first place, and I wouldn't have apologized," he said. "I really think I left myself open when I apologized, because I think if it was set up as a prank, it should have just been taken as a prank. It was totally scary."

Since then, he said, he's become more aware of the impact that a blog post can have. "You can just play it fast and loose," Lam said in reference to bloggers who might snap up the slightest and least-substantiated of rumors. "But I turn my game face on for anything with Apple or Microsoft. I don't f*** around, because it's too important."

"I've always been one to post rumors...even the really gnarly rumors. I love them."
--Brian Lam, editor in chief, Gizmodo

It could be debated endlessly whether Engadget blogger Ryan Block, who posted the fake memo, should have acted differently. After all, he likely had to choose between looking into the veracity of the memo or quickly publishing the post before another tech blog beat Engadget to the punch. "I think it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to get out first, and I understand that, and I respect that," Gizmodo's Lam said. "There isn't enough time to do everything. That's why Ryan's not at fault."

Engadget's readers, at least the ones who commented on Block's apology post Thursday, seem to be on the same wavelength. "Seriously, I can always forgive the media," said one of them. "I don't see anything wrong with what you did, Ryan--any journalist would have done the exact same thing," another said. Yes, a few were miffed (including some who claimed to own Apple stock) but the overall mood of the commenters was forgiving.

Would readers cut The New York Times the same slack? Blog readers are a young, tech-savvy set who appreciate the speed at which bloggers like those at Engadget churn out the news. Newspaper readers might not demand the same kind of reporting speed, and they value a publications' attention to detail. So it's tough to say whether such an error like Engadget's would've gone over at a major newspaper without any pink slips in the aftermath.

That's not to say mainstream news outlets haven't had their fair share of factual gaffes. In March, MSNBC ran a story, pulled from a political Web site, saying Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was suspending his campaign. As Engadget did last week, MSNBC corrected the error, admitted its mistake, and moved on with the news.

The ultrafast, competitive nature of online reporting and publishing is here to stay. That means readers must adapt and be aware of the circumstances, said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, who specializes in new media. "I read lots of journalism on blogs, and think that as with anything--with anything I read in any publication, print or on the Web--I always am skeptical, and we've got to be skeptical about everything we see."

It's not just readers. Finance pundit and Wallstrip blogger Howard Lindzon said he was astonished by the stock-trading frenzy that occurred in the wake of the original Engadget post. "People got scared," he said in an interview. They "saw the stock go down $4, and they panicked."

It's not the first time a fake rumor has had reverberations in a company's stock: Networking-equipment company Emulex temporarily lost $2.5 billion in 2000 after a fake press release hit the Internet.

"I read new media for stocks, because I think there's some good stuff out there," Lindzon said. "At the same time, I don't act on anything I read. It's noise to me." In other words, the breakneck pace of blog publishing doesn't have to apply to readers--especially those who might have a financial stake in what's published.

But amid all the talk of a need for caution, there's a bright side, too. According to Sreenivasan, people's willingness to accept and believe the content of major blogs like Engadget is a sign that blogs are maturing into respected mainstream media. "There was a time when people didn't believe anything on television or on the radio, or when people would do phone interviews, and no one would believe that," he said. "Any society kind of adapts to the new medium for communication and for news gathering and for news distribution.

"Now, if there's news broken on Second Life, it wouldn't have a big impact, but who knows (if it will) many years from now?"