Thursday, March 16, 2006

Yeah, You Really Got Me Going So I Can’t Sleep At Night

For the last couple days I’ve been fascinated with the Will Ferrell hoax. The speed that it spread and how fast it was refuted is truly what the ‘Brave New World’ of online news delivery is all about. Hey, what can I say? I fell for it. Whoever you are you got me. I wish I could say ‘no harm, no foul’ but for reasons that I outlined yesterday there is some harm in giving those who wish to discredit the Internet the fuel to do so.

Yesterday I posted what some would consider a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the possibility of the hoax being staged and I speculated on two possible motives behind it. I passed it along to What Really Happened (the site that I got the initial report from) with the sentiment of “hey, they got me too” and Mike Rivero posted it immediately. (Thanks, my hit counter caught on fire.) Upon further reflection but mostly after my good friend Kevin Wolf pointed it out, I realized that I really gave George Bush or whoever pulls his strings far too much credit for being able to orchestrate such a cunning plan.

Then I found on digg a link to this story about a 15 year old who managed to pass a story off as real news by issuing a press release on an open indexed website. Google automatically aggregated Vendetta’s story on their main news page as if it was a wire report from a legitimate news source. Other online news sources picked up the story and reported it as ‘the truth’.

Some might call his clever prank hacking or cracking and lump it in with virus writing and spyware. In his case no one was hurt, no system crashed, no computer system was broken into and technically I don’t think he broke any laws. (Please inform me if I’m wrong.) The server where he posted his report was open to anyone who wanted access and the fake story was about himself, it would be a stretch to call it libel. Google and I-Newswire both had about three days notice that there was a flaw resulting in the automated dissemination of unconfirmed reports but appear to have reacted too slowly to stop further abuse. (Actually the exploit was first publicized on March 9th here but Vendetta’s story was the first to arouse controversy.)

What happened next is where lines were crossed and harm was done. Someone who took the most rudimentary steps to cover their tracks posted a phony and probably libelous report about Will Ferrell using the exact same exploit. Whoever it was tried to post several other stories but failed to get any more listed before the hole closed. So most likely it was a copycat prankster, probably another kid looking to cause definite mischief. The pranksters deserve some form of punishment for the hoax. Vendetta, despite showing some remorse on his blog, should face at least token discipline. The fake obituary should be treated with the same seriousness as placing phony 911 calls or pulling fire alarms. People get hurt that way. Whoever did it should be tracked down and punished to the full extent of the law. Unfortunately it’s much easier for the FBI to chase down a tip from your cranky neighbor then track clever criminals hiding behind a simple proxy server.

Google is equally culpable for their role in this mess. Although it’s technically possible to automate news delivery, some tasks should be handled only by a real human being, common sense can’t be assigned to an algorithm. News reporting is too important to leave exposed to common hooligans or those with a more sinister agenda. That is unless Google doesn’t want the reputation for unscrupulous accuracy in their news service. Up until now they were a trusted source. Maybe we should keep an eye on them, see if they make that mistake again. At least we now know better then to accept automated news reports as accurate. Hey, it’s the new media and I guess there are still some more growing pains headed our way.

As for my conspiracy theory, clearly I attributed malice and cunning vision to the Bush administration and the tiny handful of men who control the media. For that, I’m sorry. In the future, I’ll try not to over estimate the technical savvy of any bureaucrat when obviously the brilliant masterminds behind the Will Ferrell hoax were a couple of bored teenagers.

7 Comments:

Blogger Dean ASC said...

I reserve the right to kill off topic posts without apology. You want to stay make it clear how your comments relate.

Mar 16, 2006, 10:00:00 AM  
Anonymous shem the penman said...

How about "You spend WAAAAAY to much time thinking about the internet and Will Ferrell. Maybe it
is coffee paranoia?"

Mar 16, 2006, 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Dean ASC said...

I quit drinking coffee months ago. It only takes me an hour to bang these out. It's just a hobby. I usually do them the night before and post in the morning.

Mar 16, 2006, 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger TommyOkktane said...

The fake obituary should be treated with the same seriousness as placing phony 911 calls or pulling fire alarms.

Please tell me this bit of hyperbolic sentiment was the by-product of your newfound fascination with Will Ferrell.

Mar 17, 2006, 8:41:00 AM  
Blogger Dean ASC said...

My dad was a volunteer fireman when I was a child. He taught me at a very young age that false alarms can be more dangerous then the real thing.

I remember in Merrimac before pagers and cellphones they used to sound a civil defense horn on the top of city hall when there was a fire. We would all hear the horn and Dad would drop everything put on the boots, helmet and coat then rush off in the car. My mother would be worried (then when she stopped worrying you could tell they were headed toward divorce.)

My dad would meet at the engine house and they would speed off to where the fire was. Dad was one of the guys who rode on the side of the truck. That was the part he hated. He didn't like holding on to a speeding fire engine as it whipped around corners all the while worrying about what they'd find. On the occaisonal false alarm he'd come home furious. He hated getting worked up and worried, hanging off the truck and then find it was for nothing.

I grew up keenly aware that false alarms aren't merely simple pranks. They fuck with peoples lives.

Mar 17, 2006, 9:01:00 AM  
Blogger TommyOkktane said...

So, you’re equating the purported death of a C-List actor to someone pulling a fire alarm for the fun of it? Maybe I’m being a bit myopic here, but aside from a gaggle of 16-year-olds that can recite snippets of Elf dialogue verbatim who exactly is harmed in this prank?

And you really can’t pin this on overt attempts to discredit the internet news revolution because fake obituaries have been around since the Irish sports section came into existence. I recall some mediocre hack once saying “the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

If anything, I’d level a finger at Ferrell, that somehow, some way, he was involved in all this nonsense. Now that the ‘sex tape’ insta-publicity conspiracy has run its course, celebrities are finding new ways to get their names out on the front pages.

Mar 17, 2006, 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Dean ASC said...

Yes.

Mar 17, 2006, 12:18:00 PM  

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