Most of the time these sources will stay anonymous, communicating through throwaway email accounts or other untraceable means. This actually happens quite often, be it through a disgruntled ex employee, a supplier or just someone who likes to spill the beans. Certain leaks will even offer their information for cash incentives.
In order to build trust to see their story make the press, these inside sources will offer the journalist something to verify, but not give away, their identity.
In the cutthroat world of tech blogging — where websites are in a perpetual race to have the first article out for the sake of pageviews — the luxury of trying to verify sources and rumours sometimes isn’t there. First to press about a potentially large, developing story can result in a hefty upswing in pageviews and a resulting bonanza in ad revenue.
Thus, the danger of the tech blogging ecosystem being hoodwinked by someone masquerading as a source is clear and present.
Cue the story of the X-Surface, a widely reported portable component for Microsoft’s XBox 360 successor.
Considering the market trends, a rumour about a next-generation console from Microsoft with an emphasis on portability seems entirely plausible — tablets are stealing the casual gaming market, and without a doubt NVIDIA’s Project Shield is sure to be a disruptive force in the sector.
Except, there isn’t an X-Surface. There never was.
The X-Surface was an elaborate hoax conducted by a bored blogger to see how quickly an unverified rumour would make its way through the tech blogging ecosystem. His social experiment quickly became an example of how fact-checking has become an afterthought in today’s media-crazy world.
The anonymous blogger describes his plan:
At 1:41am GMT today I sent out an email to a bunch of gaming sites claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on the new Xbox.
I made up every single word of it along with a couple of specs copied from other rumours that have been appearing on the Internet.
This was a bit of an experiment to see just how easy it is to get a fake story taken seriously. And it is shockingly easy in the games industry.
Much to his horror/amusement, his story about the X-Surface spread like wildfire throughout the blogosphere. Pocket Lint ran it first, claiming that they had made attempts to verify the claims, and it was quickly picked up by dozens of websites including some of the more ‘respectable’ enterprises like CNET, Gizmodo, and Yahoo.
When it was revealed that the story was fake, many of these websites quickly issued corrections. Some just spiked the story, trying to revise history to make it look as if it never happened.
Others, apparently, angrily responded to the faux tipster, perhaps redfaced that they had been had.
What’s the takeaway from this? While it’s tempting to have that ‘first post’, the role of the press — of which the blogosphere is included —is to be an industry watchdog and not just a self serving beast hungry for pageviews.