As I Was Saying

Don't Believe Everything on the Web

9/13/2011 10:35 AM

You knowingly scoff at people who believe everything they see on the Internet, especially those who naively still say, “They wouldn’t post it if it weren’t true.” Yes, you - and everybody should - know better than that.

Yet the ongoing outbreaks of disinformation and pure lies (usually indistinguishable) can affect the strongest media organizations. It’s a reminder of the complex evolving digital culture and further evidence that the immediacy of electronic communications opens the door to egregious errors.

The latest flare-up involved CBSNews.com, which since May has hosted the Web series “What’s Trending,” independently produced by Shira Lazar Productions and the Disrupt Group, which Lazar co-founded. On Thursday, the group Tweeted that Steve Jobs was dead, “news” that immediately flew through the blogosphere. If you didn’t look closely, the Tweet looked like official CBS coverage, giving it an imprimatur of reality. With many apologies from both Lazar and CBS, the posting came down quickly, and the next day CBS cut off its relationship.

The Lazar incident comes in the midst of a veritable digital death watch over Steve Jobs, including a macabre, and frankly creepy, site which answers the question “Is Steve Jobs Dead?”

On Friday, as CBS was purging all Lazar connections, the NBC News Twitter account was hit by a massive hack attack. For a few minutes, until NBC officials caught the false Tweets and took them down, the feed said that a commercial airplane had crashed into New York’s Ground Zero area. Again the timing of the message, during the tense build-up to the memorial weekend, triggered a blogosphere explosion of its own.  The FBI’s cyber-crimes unit is investigating the case. The network had to issue apologies for something it had not done. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams offered an explanation on Friday night’s newscast.

NBC says that “Script Kiddies,” anonymous computer pranksters split off from earlier hacker groups, was responsible for Friday’s Twitter hacks. Script Kiddies acknowledges that its main goal is to embarrass news organizations. In July it hacked into Fox News’ Twitter account.

Last week’s cases - the Jobs story apparently from ignorance and the NBC Tweets for malicious purpose - offer a warning of what’s to come as social TV provides even more platforms to encourage viewers and get out the word, even if it is the wrong, or dangerous word.

And it doesn’t merely apply to news. Today’s contentious business environment, especially in the media and telecom sectors, provides bad actors with plenty of opportunities to spread “faux news.” Moreover the encouragement of user-generated content for local and special-interest reports means that more untrained “producers” will pour their opinions and puff into the digital dialogue, often under the marquee of respected brands, such as yours.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com