Tech world not immune to fake news

012417blog iphone cup holder

Yes, the term “fake news” has already been politicized to the point of near-meaninglessness, but before it is relegated to the dustbin of our lexicon, allow me to note that the practice itself has been around for eons and is no stranger to the world of technology.

Just ask the peddlers of eBay’s famously fake tale of being born out of a girlfriend’s love for Pez dispensers, a fib I fumed about in the former print edition of Network World way back in 2002.

And while there are many more and many more egregious examples, let’s run through just a few that I’m able to recall right off the top of my head because that’s where I wrote about them.

Remember “Facebook for Drunks?”

A social network that caters exclusively to drunks and requires actual Breathalyzer proof of drunkenness using an actual Breathalyzer to log in? Must be a joke, right?

Of course it's a joke, but that hasn't stopped The Internet - including a number of tech news sites - from taking this "social network" seriously, or the "founders" from promising to make a splash at the SXSW extravaganza kicking off in Austin today.

They had an oh-so-cute video:

Totally fake.

There was the iPhone cup holder pictured at the top of this post: You know, a cup holder that would also hold your iPhone, or, if you prefer, an iPhone holder that would also hold your cup. Debunking that one sent me into an uncontrollable spasm of gloating.

Hate to say I told you so ... No, wait, I'm fine with saying I told you so: That combination cup holder/iPhone case that was mocked here on Friday is indeed a joke, or a publicity stunt if you prefer (and I do), according to the Dutch marketing firm that pitched it to reporters and the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.

I unmasked these particular purveyors of fake news by using an old investigative reporter’s trick: I asked them if their fake news pitch was fake. They said yes.

012417blog duct tape jacket American Motorcyclist

That post led a Network World reader to recall another tall tale – I guess this one might be considered more of a prank than fake news – involving the magazine American Motorcyclist and … duct tape.

On page 44 of the May 1978 issue of American Motorcyclist, in amongst a bunch of advertisements for genuine motorcycle apparel, we find this one for a "Team Duct Tape" jacket.

It reads: "In response the proliferation of skin-tight, silver race team jackets, the makers of duct tape have introduced an official 'Team Duct Tape' model, available exclusively to people cool enough to wear it. For more info, send SASA to Tape, P.O. Box 141, Westerville, OH

Envelopes poured in. People actually bought the idea of a “Team Duct Tape” racing jacket and would have bought the real thing if it hadn’t been fake.

012417blog bjarne2 Bjarne Stroustrup

Then there’s the sad tale of computer scientist Bjarne Stroustrup – the father of C++ -- who has been dogged for decades by a fake story alleging (falsely) that he “admitted in an interview that he developed the language solely to create high-paying jobs for programmers."

Never happened. Totally fake. So fake, in fact, that the fact-checkers at a couple years ago deemed the whopper worthy of a thorough debunking. I asked Stroustrup if he was hopeful that being supported by such an authoritative source might finally drive a stake through the fabricated non-story’s heart.

"Not really,” he replied. “The main effect will probably be to add one more source of the 'interview.' "

I feel his pain, for I, too, have no confidence that a cure will be found for fake news. In fact, back in 2011, I wrote of my omnipresent fear of being victimized by it myself … and, coincidentally, look whose name popped up in that post:

Most journalists believe themselves too guarded to be taken (except for those who have been taken; I have not ... yet). But a piece in the Los Angeles Times aptly summarizes both the folly of that hubris and the sum of all my fears: "The tricksters and political pranksters have numbers. They have big plans. They embrace a lawless tradition and an outlaw code. They will be back. And they are fairly certain you can be had."

So am I. ... So ... am ... I.

"In many cases, they will be right. Fake news may not be inevitable. But it will always find a pathway, particularly in the frantic chase that is journalism in the Digital Age. All harried journalists can do is take a moment, breathe deeply and make that extra confirmation phone call, because the next $10,000 Donald Trump restaurant tip, campaign to blockade oil spills with human hair or School for Panhandlers (all fakes swallowed, whole, by some of the media) is just beyond the next deadline."

It's only a matter of time.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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