How a Bogus Apple Rumor Hoodwinked Online News Outlets

Well, the experiment worked. A Swedish design firm called Day4 set out to demonstrate how easily false information could turn into news online, and boy was it successful. The company produced a mock-up image of a screw with an asymmetrical head, ostensibly designed by Apple to prevent users from tinkering with their devices. After posting it to Reddit, all they had to do was sit back and wait for tech reporters to take the bait. 

The image, which Day4 posted to Reddit anonymously a weeka ago, was enough to get the story picked up by Cult of Mac 12 hours later and then by Apple-watching blogs and news sites across the Web. 

Full disclosure: I was covering a - real, I swear - study showing that the new MacBook Pro is difficult to repair when I saw this headline come across my RSS reader and decided to include it at the bottom of my story (which has since been updated). From my vantage point, it looked like any other news story that bubbles up on Twitter, Google Reader or Flipboard. The crucial difference was, of course, that it was completely false. So how did I - and several other reporters - get duped so easily? 

Why the Story Caught On

The idea that Apple would start using a special, asymmetrical screw to hold its products together is not altogether unbelievable. It fits into a larger, historically accurate narrative that goes back to the days of the first Macintosh desktop computer. That machine, like later devices, was deliberately designed to discourage hobbyists eager to tear it open and start tinkering. 

In fact, this narrative was still alive and kicking last week, when iFixIt called the brand-new Retina MacBook Pro "the least repairable laptop" it had seen. Hence my impulse to grab a link to the phony report. 

The bogus story was also well-timed, coming just as leaked details are piling up ahead of next month's iPhone launch. Apple watchers are on the lookout for leaks and rumors year-round, but in the days leading up to a major product launch, the alleged details grow more numerous and the coverage more feverish. 

All of which begs the question: Didn't anyone attempt to verify the story by calling Apple, Day4, and/or an independent hardware analyst? Of course not. We're talking about the Internet.

Implications for Online News 

Many of us who work in online media proudly extoll the advantages of our craft and the innovative platforms that deliver our output to readers. And - let's be honest - sometimes we do so while turning our noses up at those who came before us in print and other legacy media. But there's something to be said for the legions of copyeditors and fact checkers getting laid off from your local newsroom.  

Publishing online is cheaper, more efficient and more participatory. Many would argue that, as a result, it's more democratic and open than the media it has supplanted. Yet one of its prime benefits - unprecedented speed - is also, as we've seen again and again, one of its biggest pitfalls. 

A more dramatic example unfolded a year ago when a prankster published a realistic-looking "study" purporting to show that Internet Explorer users were less intelligent than those who used other Web browsers. That story made it much further than the phone Apple screw report, probably because its perpetrator put much more effort into it. Tarandeep Singh, a Canadian developer for whom IE "was being a pain in the ass," went as far as to buy a domain name for a fake company, scrape content from another business' website and then send out a press release linking back to a legitimate-looking PDF of the phony study. 

The media ate it up. Mashable and Business Insider were among the first to report it, and it exploded from there, despite language in the fake report that should have raised serious doubts about its authenticity. That is, if anybody had taken the time to read it carefully. 

That's one of the major challenges in the emerging online news ecosystem. In the scramble to publish first or rack up page views, things like this to slip through the cracks. 

The frantic rush to publish isn't unique to the Web. That much was verified in June when both CNN and Fox News incorrectly reported that the Supreme Court had overturned President Obama's health care law. Cable news didn't need Twitter or Wordpress to make that gaffe, but the Web's ever more rapid news cycle may have helped build the editorial culture that let it happen.

To its credit, the media didn't allow the Apple screw story to get as far as it could have, and many reports emphasized that it was only a rumor. Perhaps it was because Day4 wasn't as thorough as Singh was with his fictional IE study. The Swedish outfit posted a fake image anonymously to Reddit, which reporters knew to take with a grain of salt. Still, the fake rumor spread further than something that is patently false should have. And it gave us just the latest reminder that as we journalists march forward into the globally networked future, we ought to do so with humility and caution.