Media, Google, and shades of grey on April Fool's Day
by Josh Bernoff
A headline stating that Mitt Romney was dropping out of the presidential race and endorsing Rick Santorum appeared at the top of Google News on Sunday. It was clearly false. How did this happen?
It starts with the bloggers posting on news sites. Len Burman blogs for the Forbes site as "The Impertinent Economist." Len is no joker. He is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan professor of public affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, and was a senior official in the Clinton Treasury Department. Until yesterday, his blog mostly focused on pointedly skewering much of the partisan tax debate with both fact and well considered opinion. (I also know this guy a little more than most of the bloggers out there, since he's my smartest cousin.)
Does Len Burman belong on the Forbes site? Sure. Serious news sites feature bloggers, and with this kind of pedigree, he's the kind of guy we want to hear from. He's not a reporter, but these are shades of grey.
On Sunday April 1, Len posted a piece on his Forbes blog called "Romney Drops Out of Race, Endorses Santorum." It's pretty funny -- it makes an entirely believable case that Romney took credit for the Massachusetts health care law he presided over, decided Santorum would lose anyway, and wanted to wait four years to have a better chance. Of course, it would never actually happen, which makes it just a clever April Fool's joke. It's amusing -- go ahead and read it.
Like many Web sites, Forbes doesn't police its bloggers ahead of time. So the piece went up on Sunday when Len posted it, and an email went out to everyone following his blog. Should Forbes police every post its bloggers put up? Shades of grey.
Should Forbes allow April Fools jokes on its site? A lot of sites do. They know we can tell the diference. Shades of grey again.
The post ended up at the top of Google news. Why? Google News is an algorithm. It knows there were lots of stories about Romney and Santorum so this must be important news. And it knows Forbes is a respected news site. So Forbes articles about Romney and Santorum go on Google news. For a short moment, my cousin was in the most coveted spot in the news business. (The screen shot you see here was taken by Gawker.)
Should Google News have shown this article? Good question. But how would you stop it? Should human editors vet stories on Google News? That undermines the whole algorithm. Should it censure Forbes for hosting bloggers? Most other news organizations would be banned, too. Should it learn to identify jokes? That's would a fun artificial intelligence project. A little more vigilance would be a good idea on April Fool's Day, perhaps. Shades of grey again.
Or maybe the story belongs there, and we should learn to tell the difference between news and satire. It's the headline, though, that many would read and perhaps even believe -- and the headline looks like news.
What happened next is instructive. Forbes yanked the blog post (Len tied to repost it, it disappeared again) and also yanked a subsequent post in which Len explained himself. Why yank it? There are a number of possible explanations, but in my opinion, it was Google News that got in the way. This satirical post would probably have stayed there, but I think Forbes didn't want to look bad on Google News. All those people clicking on the seductive title on Google News, Facebook, and everywhere else it was shared then got a broken link on Forbes' site.
But you can't get things off the Internet. Len's post lives on a blog he set up for it. And in a classic example of the Streisand Effect, yanking the post led to other stories about the joke and the reaction in the sites of the Washington Post's, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Daily News, and Mashable. Not only that, it became a trending topic on Twitter. The story lives on. Shades of grey indeed.
You can imagine ways that Forbes or Google could fix this. Or you could see this as part of a trend that ranges from Fox News to This American Life. There is no longer a way to restore the black and white distinction between truth and the mass of opinion on the Internet. We must all become skeptics. Especially on April Fool's Day.