False Reporting on the Internet and the Spread of Rumors: Three Case Studies

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The expansion of the Internet has allowed for far greater numbers of people to become involved with the production and dissemination of news. As a consequence, cyberjournalism and the Internet have had real effects on both the process of reporting and subsequent public discourse. Jim Hall (2001) believes that one problem with instant news appearing on the Internet is that the way errors are handled does not adequately address the fact that an error was made. He writes, “The problem with instant news is that when it is wrong it tends to be buried, sedimenting into and reinforcing its context, rather than corrected” (p. 133). Errors of Internet reporting do not often get identified and corrected as they do in newspapers. Instead, even if the editors of the Web site where the error first appeared change their site to remove the error, often the same false information will have already spread throughout other Web sites and emails.
This paper will first consider Hall’s assertion that errors are buried rather than corrected, and will examine the reasons Internet reporting leads to false reports. Then, three case studies of significant false reports on the Internet will be compared to the theories behind cyberjournalism in order to understand why the errors occurred and the impacts of these stories. The three stories to be investigated are the crash of TWA flight 800, the abuse charges against former White House special assistant Sidney Blumenthal, and the death of former White House Aide Vince Foster.