Erasing embarrassing news articles

The Daily Mail Online - Article deleted

On 28 July 2011, a press release (“Is Internet Explorer For The Dumb? A New Study Suggests Exactly That”) was issued by an apparently legitimate company called AptiQuant:

AptiQuant offered free online IQ tests to over a 100,000 people and then plotted the average IQ scores based on the browser on which the test was taken.  And the results are really not that surprising.  With just a look at the graphs in the report, it comes out pretty clear that Internet Explorer users scored lower than average on the IQ tests.

The press release was reported by many of the biggest news websites, including BBC News, CNN, The Huffington Post, Mail Online, Mashable, The Telegraph, Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, News.com.au, etc.

However, a few days later, it was revealed that the press release was actually a hoax, created by Canadian software engineer Tarandeep Gill, and that the company AptiQuant does not actually exist:

There is no company called AptiQuant, and no such survey was ever done.

The main purpose behind this hoax was to create awareness about the incompatibilities of IE6 and how it is pulling back innovation.

Those big news websites were suddenly facing an embarrassing dilemma…


The dilemma: Apologise or erase?

Their published articles clearly indicated they had believed the AptiQuant press release was genuine.  Once it was revealed to be a hoax, how should they respond?  Be honest and apologise for their mistake, or attempt a cover-up by silently erasing the articles and pretending they never published them?

Logo of the non-existent company AptiQuantApologising would draw attention to the fact that they made a mistake, which might temporarily harm their reputation, but readers would appreciate their honesty.  Silently erasing the embarrassing articles would be likely to draw far less initial attention than apologising, but “an attempt to cover up is often regarded as even more reprehensible than the original deeds”. [1]

I’m fascinated by the philosophy and psychology of moral/ethical issues like this, and I would have loved to have been present when this dilemma was being wrestled with in the offices of those big news websites.  I love the deep thinking and reasoning which is stimulated by moral/ethical dilemmas like these classic examples, since they reveal much about human nature.


Apologetic news websites

The majority of news websites left their original articles unchanged, and published follow-up articles in which they admitted they had fallen for the hoax.  At the end of this post, I’ve compiled a list of links to some of these articles.

Thumbnail of News.com.au article 'It's OK, Internet Explorer users - we're the dummies'Some websites merely admitted their error, with no apology.  Others were openly apologetic or embarrassed, and I particularly like the articles of News.com.au.  In their original article, they created an image of a schoolboy wearing a dunce cap with the Internet Explorer logo, sitting in front of a blackboard on which he had written lines saying “I will install Chrome” as a punishment!  In their follow-up article, the schoolboy’s dunce cap now has the News.com.au logo instead, and the blackboard lines now say “I must properly source my stories”! Yellow smiley

CNN’s follow-up article is not particularly apologetic, but the article’s author did reply to a comment:

Comment:  CNN and the other major news outlets used poor judgment and lazy journalism reporting this “story.” … Hopefully this humorous hoax regardless of its intentions will motivate news outlets to report the facts first and maintain integrity.

Article author:  We always try hard but, believe me, this little incident has got us thinking even harder about double and triple-checking what we report.

Here are a few of the apologetic or embarrassed responses of some news websites:

“I fell for it”  —  Seattle PI

“they got us”  —  Gawker

“We’ve been had!”  —  CBS News

“we regret the error”  —  The Atlantic Wire

“Oops! … Apparently we were the fools.”  —  Seattle Weekly

“We were all duped. We’re the dummies.”  —  Business Insider

“We ran a story about web browser dummies and ended up looking like fools.”  —  News.com.au

“Looks like I’m the dumb one … I’m sorry to the Internet Explorer users who were offended by the story … and I’m fully prepared for the inevitable jokes about my own IQ.”  —  PC World Magazine (New Zealand)

“It turns out the ones with a below average IQ are a number of people in the news media – including us … We fell for it … So with egg on our face, we say sorry to all the Internet Explorer users we offended out there.”  —  NPR


BBC News – Article contents deleted

BBC News logoBBC News initially fell for the hoax, and published an article titled “Internet Explorer users have lower IQ says study” at www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14370878.

After the hoax was uncovered, they published a follow-up article, “Internet Explorer story was bogus”, in which they admitted they believed the AptiQuant press release was genuine:

A number of media organisations, including the BBC, reported on the research, put out by Canadian firm ApTiquant.

They admitted that they “reported on the research”, but they then deleted the contents of that original articlewww.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14370878 now contains a copy of the follow-up article instead.  The text of the original article is no longer available anywhere on their website.

However, before the BBC had a chance to delete their original text, it was copied by hundreds of other websites around the world, especially discussion forums.  Here are some forums where the original article was posted: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Here is a screenshot of the original article – the article which the BBC do not wish you to read, and have deleted from their website.  Click on it for a full-size version:

BBC News article'Internet Explorer users have lower IQ says study'


The Guardian – Article contents deleted

The Guardian logoThe Guardian initially fell for the hoax too, and published an article titled “Can it really be true that users of Internet Explorer are stupider than average?”.  The article was part of the Pass Notes series – “through the medium of questions and answers, an encapsulation of important current issues”.

This was an embarrassing mistake for The Guardian, which is proud to be a well-respected member of the UK quality press.

When the hoax was revealed, they deleted the contents of the article, and replaced it with the following message:

The Pass notes column was taken down because the story on which it was based is a hoax.  The story suggested that scientific research showed that those who used Internet Explorer to complete an online quiz were less intelligent than others who completed the quiz.

One reader left the following comment on the article:

Shame the Guardian doesn’t bother to check its ‘science’ stories better, but I suppose it’s easier to accept press releases at face value.

Before the article text was deleted, it was posted on Usenet, and it was also copied by various websites: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Here is a screenshot of the article before its contents were deleted.  Click on it for a full-size version:

The Guardian article 'Pass notes No 3,020: Internet Explorer'

The caption underneath the article’s image says:

The Internet Explorer logo: which version you use could save you some embarrassment.

Actually, it’s The Guardian which experienced some embarrassment, not Internet Explorer users.


The Independent – Article deleted

The Independent logoThe Independent published an article titled “Internet Explorer users have lower IQs: study”.

This article was actually written by AFP-Relaxnews, to which The Independent subscribes, and the same article was also available on Yahoo! News.

Allowing this article to be published on their website was an embarrassing mistake for The Independent, which (like The Guardian) is a member of the UK quality press.

When the hoax was revealed, they deleted the article from their website, and the article page now shows a 404 error.

Here is a screenshot of the article before it was deleted.  Click on it for a full-size version:

The Independent article 'Internet Explorer users have lower IQs: study'

The Independent also published a follow-up article by AFP-Relaxnews, titled “Why a web developer orchestrated the ‘IE users are dumb’ study hoax”.  One reader asked an interesting question in the comments section:

I do appreciate this background story on why the hoaxer perpetrated the hoax, but do you think we could perhaps get a nice in-depth article on why the top-tier media company decided to print the hoax story?

Mail Online – Article deleted

Mail Online logoMy favourite example of an embarrassing deleted article is the one written by the Mail Online.

The article was located at www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2021211/, and was originally titled “IQ survey brands Internet Explorer users ‘almost retarded’ compared to those on Google Chrome and Firefox”.

However, the article was then updated at least three times, and a Google search reveals the history of these updates:

Google search results, showing history of updates to Mail Online article

I guess someone at the Mail Online felt that “almost retarded” was perhaps a little inappropriate (that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in AptiQuant’s press release or PDF), and so the title of the article was changed to “Internet Explorer users are stupid and have an average IQ of just 80, aptitude study claims”.

When the hoax was revealed, they deleted the article from their website, pretending they had never published it in the first place.  The article page now shows the following message:

Sorry… The page you have requested does not exist or is no longer available.

Before the article text was deleted, it was copied by various internet forums: 1, 2, 3, 4.  Here is a screenshot of the article before it was deleted.  Click on it for a full-size version:

Mail Online article 'IQ survey brands Internet Explorer users 'almost retarded' compared to those on Google Chrome and Firefox'


Comparison with “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, run by the ruling political party which is known simply as the Party.  His job is to rewrite historical documents, to make it appear that the Party is always correct, has always made accurate predictions, and has always fulfilled its promises.

Any document which indicates that the Party has changed its mind about any subject, or has made a mistake of any kind, is to be dropped into “a large oblong slit” known as a memory hole, which leads to giant incinerators.

Once the Party has decided that an event must be forgotten, the Ministry of Truth destroys every single item of documentary evidence of that event.  In this way, no-one can ever prove that the event actually occurred:

The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed.  For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory? [2]

Furthermore, no-one can even prove that any historical documents have ever been altered or destroyed:

In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. [3]

A number of ‘The Times’ which might … have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. [3]

Of course, the events in the fictional world of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are far more extreme than the deletion of the embarrassing articles about the AptiQuant hoax.  But there are similarities in the underlying principle.

For example, a person who read the Mail Online article would be puzzled if they returned the following day and discovered that all traces of the article have been erased.  They know the article existed yesterday, but how can they prove it?  “For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”

A person who read the original BBC News article would be puzzled if they returned the following day and discovered that the article has been rewritten.  They know the article was different yesterday, but how can they prove it?  “A number of ‘The Times’ which might … have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it.”


Conclusion

I commend the many news websites which admitted they had fallen for the hoax and apologised for their error.  Some websites like News.com.au even apologised in a humorous way, and I think this is a great response!

However, certain websites silently deleted their embarrassing articles with no admission of their mistake and no apology to their readers.  In my opinion, this is completely unacceptable.

The Daily Mail Online - Article deletedOn 1 August 2011, Daniel Bates wrote an article for the Mail Online, titled “IQ survey brands Internet Explorer users ‘almost retarded’ compared to those on Google Chrome and Firefox”.  The article was published online, but this does not make it acceptable to delete the article and pretend it never existed in the first place.  This would be impossible if the article had been printed in a newspaper, since there would have been hundreds of thousands of physical copies distributed across the UK.

If the article had not been copied by other websites, it would now be impossible to prove that the article had ever existed.  The Mail Online could easily deny that they had ever published such an article, and there would be no evidence to the contrary.

I’d like to end with this scene I love from “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, in which Winston witnesses O’Brien (a member of the Inner Party) destroying a valuable item of evidence and then denying that it ever existed:

There was a memory hole in the opposite wall.  O’Brien lifted the grating.  Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame.  O’Brien turned away from the wall.

“Ashes,” he said.  “Not even identifiable ashes.  Dust.  It does not exist.  It never existed.”

“But it did exist!  It does exist!  It exists in memory.  I remember it.  You remember it.”

“I do not remember it,” said O’Brien. [4]


Appendix: List of news articles

The table below contains links to many of the biggest news websites which initially reported the story as genuine, and then published a follow-up article admitting they had been fooled by the hoax.

Website Original article Follow-up article
Business Insider STUDY: Internet Explorer Users Are Dumber The Study Saying Internet Explorer Users Are Dumb Is A Hoax
CBS News Internet Explorer users “are kind of stupid,” says study We’ve been had! Internet Explorer users might not be dumb after all
CBR People with higher IQ are shunning Internet Explorer: study Internet Explorer ‘low IQ’ findings a hoax?
CNET Just how stupid are IE users? Relief: IE users not stupid after all
CNN Are Internet Explorer users dumb? Internet Explorer IQ report was a hoax
Fox News / TechNewsDaily Internet Explorer Users Are Dumber, Study Shows Internet Explorer Users Aren’t Dumber After All
Gawker Internet Explorer Users Are Objectively Stupid Internet Explorer IQ Story Was a Hoax
Los Angeles Times Do Internet Explorer users have the lowest IQs on the Web? Internet Explorer IQ study was a hoax
Mashable IE Users Have Lower IQ Than Users of Other Web Browsers [STUDY] Study Showing IE Users Have Low IQ Likely a Hoax
Metro (UK) Google Chrome, Opera, Firefox users ‘smarter’ than Internet Explorer users ‘Internet Explorer users have low IQs’ story was likely a hoax
MSNBC Internet Explorer 6 users have low IQs, study says IE 6 users maybe not as dumb as we expect
News.com.au It’s official! Internet Explorer users are totally dumb It’s OK, Internet Explorer users – we’re the dummies
NPR Study Suggests Internet Explorer Users Are, Um, Kind Of Slow Study About The Intelligence Of Internet Explorer Users Likely A Hoax
PC World Magazine (New Zealand) Internet Explorer users are kinda stupid, study suggests Retraction: Internet Explorer IQ story a hoax
Seattle PI Dumb people use Internet Explorer, survey says Internet Explorer IQ study was a hoax
Seattle Weekly Use Internet Explorer? You’re Probably Dumb, Study Says Anatomy of a Hoax: Study Showing Internet Explorer Users Have Low IQs Was Fake
The Atlantic Wire Chart: What Your Web Browser Says About Your IQ We Fell for the Internet-Explorer-Users-Are-Stupid Hoax
The Huffington Post Internet Explorer Users Have Lower IQs Than Users Of Other Browsers, Survey Finds Internet Explorer Users Have Lower IQs Than Users Of Other Browsers, Survey Finds (UPDATE)
The Next Web Study proves that IE users are dumber than those who use Opera and Chrome ‘Internet Explorer users are dumber’ story was a hoax
The Register It’s official: IE users are dumb as a bag of hammers It’s official: Journos are dumb as a bag of IE users
The Telegraph Internet Explorer users ‘have below-average IQ’ Internet Explorer IQ story ‘was a hoax’
ZDNet Report suggests connection between browser choice and IQ level That Internet Explorer “IQ test” was a hoax

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