Last updated: November 27, 2012 12:22 am

Recrimination follows false Google story

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A number of online news and social media sites lit up with retractions and recriminations on Monday after a widely reported claim that Google had made a $400m acquisition turned out to be false.

The reports delivered a brief stock market bounce to ICOA, a US company that builds and operates WiFi hotspots in public places such as airports. Quoted at only a 100th of a penny, ICOA’s shares jumped fourfold after reports that it had been acquired, only to drop back within two hours. One person close to Google called an apparent press release announcing the deal a “fake”, while ICOA did not immediately return a request for comment.

The rapid dissemination of the false claim cast an unflattering light on the news sites that reported it as fact, as well as the Twitter users who amplified the message by tweeting it to their own followers. The social media’s role in magnifying false information has come under the spotlight following recent events, including a Twitter user’s invented damage “reports” during superstorm Sandy and the repetition by Twitter users of a false BBC claim of sexual molestation against a politician.

However, the latest outbreak of disinformation was more the fault of news services and blogs than the social media users who echoed their reports, some journalism experts said.

“If it was picked up by supposedly reputable blogs and the supposedly reputable AP, to be pointing the finger at people on Twitter seems wrong,” said Dan Gillmor, an author and academic who specialises in digital media.

The claim that Google had bought ICOA appeared at about 10am on Monday on a website run by PRWeb, a company that distributes press releases on behalf of companies and others. A division of online marketing group Vocus, PRWeb claims to use search engine and social media techniques to distribute press releases widely online for as little as $159 each.

In a statement, PRWeb called the press release “fraudulent” and said it had not been “issued or authorised by ICOA”. “Even with reasonable safeguards identity theft occurs, on occasion, across all of the major wire services,” it added.

ICOA did not immediately respond to questions about who had written the release or what checks were made to verify that it had been authorised by ICOA.

The fake Google acquisition was reported by AP, the US news agency that is owned by other media companies, and its report was carried on the websites of papers such as the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. It was also picked up by some of the most widely read blogs covering the technology industry, including Techcrunch and GigaOm.

The rapid spreading of false information through new online channels is only likely to slow when enough people have been hurt and learn to narrow the number of sources they trust, Mr Gillmor said. “The risks of making a very bad decision based on something false are growing,” he added.

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