Tracking the web of misinformation and copycats

How fast does misinformation spread across the web? Turns out, when it comes to the Kardashians, pretty darn fast. But even for those of us who are mere mortals and write about boring stuff like tech, still plenty fast. Let me explain.

Shelly Palmer also writes about tech stuff, and one of his articles quoted Kim and Kylie from an article in CNBC The quote contained a typo, namely, “Strop trying to be tiktok I just want to see cute photos of my friends.” Note the italics. He saw the typo and called CNBC, and within minutes the typo was fixed. No matter. By that short moment in time, hundreds of sites picked it up and included the original typo. Shelly used the typo as a “misinformation DNA marker,” as he puts it, to track who was more diligent about the typo and who could care less. It’s all about the clicks, and when it comes to Kim and Kylie, well, that can supercharge a story.

Shelly found the original phrase, with correct spelling, on a petition the women signed. What is interesting about his investigation was showing exactly how there are still close to 200 sites that haven’t changed the typo when I did my own search just now.

I feel for both Shelly and the CNBC reporter Jonathan Vanian who admitted to making the typo. I have found copycat websites all over the place that have taken my stories and posted exact replicas — some including my own byline — as if they were syndicating my content legally. They are not. It helped that I included (unintentionally at first, but now more deliberately) my own misinformation DNA marker in the form of a link to a previous blog post on my own blog. WordPress does a very solid job of tracking when someone else is posting to another WordPress blog with a link back to my content. I have seen dozens of these copycat posts, some within minutes of my story going live on the corporate blogs that have paid me to write for them. Of course, I notify my editors, but there is really very little that they can do. These copycat sites are often in other countries, and getting a takedown notice is nearly impossible, expensive, time-consuming, or all three.

All this talk about copycat websites reminds me of a story from my early career at PC Week back in 1988. I wrote a column for the paper that envisioned the advice columnist Miss Manners giving out computing advice (link) for common situations of that era. I have to say, first, I got her tone and style down cold (I will tell you why in a moment). And second, the piece has held up well after all these years, even though it uses terms that many contemporary PC users might never have heard of before. About a month after the piece ran in PC Week, I got a cease and desist letter from her syndicate’s lawyers. That to me was one of the high moments of my tenure at the pub, and an indication of how well the parody had gotten things.

Now, if any of you dear readers would like to try your hand at parodying my own style, please have it. I promise not to engage any lawyers.


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