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from massively-multiplayer decepticon

from Cascio’s “Massively-Multiplayer Decepticon”:

The use of plausible-but-fake media has a long history, but increasingly, we live in a media-saturated culture that makes it hard to distinguish between the real and the realistic. And this has consequences.

Earlier this week, Google News posted as current a six-year-old article from the South Florida Sun, reporting on the 2002 bankruptcy filing of United Airlines (UAL). The article in the Sun archive didn’t carry a date record, and the Google algorithm decided (not unreasonably) that it was new. Although United isn’t going into bankruptcy, it — like all airlines–faces a decidedly tough market, so a seemingly new announcement of bankruptcy proceedings seemed just reasonable enough to send United’s stock price plummeting by 75%. After traders realized the mistake, the stock price regained most of its value by the end of the day.

As anyone who knows the story of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast can attest, a story doesn’t have to be true to cause a panic. But Welles’ radio show had a limited audience; with the Internet, and with various news-pushing tools (from email to RSS to Twitter to texting to…) that emphasize short headlines, the reaction is both orders of magnitude faster and orders of magnitude stronger. It has to come from a reasonably-trusted source; it can’t be just some random email or Twitter post (although the current spam trend of using plausible-but-provocative headlines to get you to open the message plays on this tendency, too).

A quirky misalignment of the Sun archives and the Google News spider? Probably. But think about this for a moment: the sudden appearance of something easily proven to be untrue, but just plausible enough to be believed, was enough to cut three-quarters of the market value of a major corporation. Anyone who bought UAL at $3–the bottom of the drop — made quite a tidy profit when the stock bounced back to around $11. (Bloomberg’s mistaken publication of an obituary for Steve Jobs on August 28 would likely have had a similar impact, had it occurred during trading hours.)

The UAL event appears to have been entirely accidental. The next time probably won’t be. My only question is whether it will happen as a plot for a crime drama episode before it happens in real life.

It’s remarkably easy for false-but-plausible images, video, and stories to be used to muddy the waters of a economic, social, and political conflicts…

It doesn’t have to be anything close to real — it just has to be realistic, and sufficiently believable to cause a quick “market” collapse. Even after the market recovers, the meme has been planted.

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