This story about a 22 year old student posting a phony, but quite plausible quote in the Wikipedia obituary of composer Maurice Jarre proves nothing. The student, Shane Fitzgerald, was trying to show how information on the Internet is rarely checked for accuracy and can multiply exponentially as other news services and search engine websites redistribute information.
While I don’t disagree with the concept that rumor and half-truth can speed around the world at the speed of light, plus fast fingers, it is not like Mr. Fitzgerald started a war based on little more than his mischievous intellect, with some self-promotion tossed in for a side benefit. (Not taking a shot here Shane, but your photo courtesy Fionn Kidney / AP is a bit unctuous, no?)
There is plenty of precedence of the media missing facts that led to more significant consequences, e.g. Tonkin Gulf, WMDs, etc. etc. etc But to say the world’s media made an egregious error because they reprinted Fitzgerald’s fake quote which read, really quoting from the AP story by Shawn Pogatchnik here, “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack,” Fitzgerald’s fake Jarre quote read. “Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.” (This according to an account on the MSNBC website that ran the AP story, just want to be accurate here- give me a break.) Next time really test the system and post a video of Elvis doing a show with Hannah Montana and see how far that gets. Oh, wait that was tried already.
The media error here is to think this quoted misquote is a story, talk about a slow news day. Plenty bigger news fish to fry on the topic of misinformation passed along as fact. Quite frankly, I’d rather they focus on where exactly the trillions of TARP et al. monies are going, Pakistan’s security measures for its nuclear arsenal, and the real costs of going green, than tracking down the source of a dead man’s quote, especially one that doesn’t change the story like, Oh you mean he’s not dead?
What’s been tinkered with here is trust in society’s relationship with information on the web and specifically in Wikipedia and the media. Just like a partner in a relationship who enjoys playing mind games, Fitzgerald is the one that needs to be called to task, not the media, and not Wikipedia. His sophomoric prank underscores the fragility of trust, and when it comes to that Mr. Fitzgerald pales in comparison to Kenneth Lay, Jayson Blair, and others of that ilk. In the man’s world of written falsehoods deliberately misleading others that is called fraud.
I have this somewhat emotional reaction because I believe the social web and a free press are too important to the development of societies around the world. Perhaps Fitzgerald shares this belief and will claim that is exactly the point of the experiment. I don’t buy it. Fitzgerald and many others that knowingly game the system for classroom experiment are fulfilling Andy Warhol’s prediction of fifteen minutes of fame, need to be called out. So in my book, tests, experiments, pranks, etc. are the equivalent of pissing in the pool, sure you do it, might even tell your friends, but everyone is safe (assuming the right amounts of chlorine are applied)–but it still isn’t cool.
Albert Maruggi is the president of Provident Partners, a PR and social media consultancy. He is also the host of the Marketing Edge podcast and a senior fellow of the Society for New Communications Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @albertmaruggi on Twitter.