May 21, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Welcome to the era of gullibility 2.0

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.

See more CNET content tagged:
Engadget, rumor, memo, blogger, Apple Computer

7 comments

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Attribute or post as Rumor
Engadget could have published the "Apple" email as
"unsubstantiated" or "rumor", and still not missed a scoop if it
turned out to be true. In fact most Engaget readers who
commented on the original leak before the disavowel by Apple
were sceptical of the claim. (Which should have been an
indication to the author).

Engadget was gullible not their readers. They should do what
the vast majority of the equally news hungry Apple Web does
and make it clear that a post is a rumour but coming from a
normally reliable "Source". Just check Apple Insider, MacRumors,
MacOSRumors, MacMinute, and most of all Think Secret. The
Apple Web community is used to this form of "non"-attribution
and can evaluate it for veracity based on experience. The big
mistake Engadget made was to present the email as verifiable
NEWS.

Journalists and Bloggers need a refresher on news standards.
Attribution is not the same as self-censorship and it respects
the free flow of information. Otherwise the consequences for
stake-holders in a news event can be serious and far reaching
due to the nature of the internet.
Posted by worldboy (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Missing the point
worldboy writes, "Journalists and Bloggers need a refresher on news standards."

Let's concentrate on the bloggers and let someone else hash out the "journalist professionalism" question. Just what is it that the bloggers would be refreshing? As I understand it, the whole premise of the blogosphere is that anyone can play, no matter how uninformed one may be of petty details like professional standards (let alone the world as it happens to be when you look closely at it). This is touted as a virtue by the Web 2.0 evangelists (among others). My own humble opinion is that this is making a virtue out of taking action without giving any consideration to consequences:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/05/financial-consequences-are-newsworthy.html" target="_newWindow">http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/05/financial-consequences-are-newsworthy.html</a>

That is my own take on the world when I look closely at it. From this I can conclude only one lesson: LET THE READER BEWARE! (Unfortunately, this does not cover cases where the reader is not an active participant, such as the owner of that house in Tacoma that got trashed due to a bogus Craigslist item.)
Posted by ghostofitpast (199 comments )
Link Flag
If your source is good:q
Then your source is good. All the naysayers in the world don't change the accuracy of the orginal source.

It happens that the story was false. Of course Apple appears to be the source for that story as well.
Posted by Renegade Knight (13748 comments )
Link Flag
Cast no stone
"Would readers cut The New York Times the same slack?"

Media personnel should not throw stones while living in glass houses.

I can think of several major life affecting issues that one media outlet or another has blown in very recent memory, let alone speculation over some gadget that has no REAL bearing on life. Unfortunately such speculation can and in this case did have an affect on share holders bottom line, which IS a potentially life altering in terms of balance sheets, short calls and retirement savings.

Like Yahoo's Ron Paul coverage after the first Republican Debate when he was left off their online poll, then added but disparaged, then they had to retract that as well.

The NY Times cited by the author routinely gets things wrong or ignores glaring facts of a story, in fact EVERY newspaper does, there's always a section called CORRECTIONS, but just like with this case, no one really remembers the correction or retration, but rather the first report.

Where I do agree however, is that things that are unconfirmed should at least carry a disclaimer on the TOP of the story / post, stating something to the effect that, While this is 'hot off the presses' it's unconfrimed and might be a hoax at this time. To not do so IS in fact irresponsible journalism.

Anyway, that's my .02

Later,
Rev

Infowars - because there IS a war on for you mind
Search terms Truthaction Third Stage
Posted by Revolutn (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Different Standards
You ask in the article whether such a mistake would be tolerated in mainstream media -- the answer is no. Look at the furor that surrounded CBS' reporting of Bush's National Guard service, later proven fraudulent.

If bloggers want to be first, simply state when info is unverified. Then let the "gullible" decide for themselves.
Posted by cparente (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Accountability in Media
In my work I seldom if ever see the media accuractly report on anything that I know about.

The reason as best as I can figure is that they are Journalists. In my field I'm an expert. They are not. However they are the ones reporting, and they are needed to make those reports.

Their job is to do the best they can with what they have to work with, in the time frame they are working within. In that light I may make a better journalist within my own field insofar as accuracy and ignoring my ability to write (or not), but a worse one outside of it. Thus in that light, overall I'd say they do a good job.
Posted by Renegade Knight (13748 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Old Media Half Truths, Lies
The traditional old media in my opinion is no more trustworthy than online new media sources. Traditional media routinly engages in reporting half truths and slanting stories that fit their agenda. Just pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronical for instance. Stories constantly paint anarchists, Lefties, and perverts in a postive light, and traditional, middle class folks in a negative light. Unlicensed, unregulated "medical pot" clubs are celebrated. Every pro-illegal immigration rally is celebrated, with NO discussion about the disasterous effects of millions of people spilling over the border. Would the Chronicle ever do a story about how legal residents, taxpayers, have to wait 6 hours in a hospital emergencey room because it is filled with illegals seeking free treatment? No. Would the Chronicle ever do a story about how unemployed Black youth haev no jobs because illegals are hired instead? No. Would the Chronicle ever do a story about how restaurant patrons orders are messed up because illegals can't speak English? No. Would the Chronicle ever do a story about how school funding is hijacked to pay for hordes of illegals' children who cannot read or write in English? No. Would the Chronicle ever do a story about how illegals come into this country and spread communicable diseases like tuberculosis? No.

So what kind of newspaper is this? Can you tell me that this medium is any more reliable than new media? Should I run my life based on what the Chronicle reports? Based on their slanted, half-truth stories?
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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