Watch Out for Internet Hoaxes

This week the New York Times ran an 'Editors Note' correcting a Jan. 28 story about a support group for women having a tough time dating Wall Street bankers in a recession. The headline read, "It's the Economy, Girlfriend."

Only it turns out the support group didn't exist.

The site that earned the Times' attention is Dating a Banker Anonymous (DABA), and spells out tongue-in-cheek the financial pitfalls of women dating bankers during hard times. Interest in DABA went wild across the Internet — much of it either incredulous or dismissive of the women who came across as whiners upset that they'd lost their Sugar Daddies. Quickly there was talk of a book or movie deal.

NPR blogger Linda Holmes spotted a fraud immediately. Holmes wrote a posting on her Monkey See blog expressing surprise that readers couldn't see how many things in the Times' piece didn't add up.

For one thing, Holmes (a former attorney) noticed that DABA was registered on Jan. 16 but had postings as far back as September 2008. She also found it odd that the Times said there were 30 women in the support group — but there were no comments on the blog.

After Holmes and others challenged the veracity of the Times' piece, Newsweek met with the DABA women and got a confession.

"There is no real support community, no regular meetings and the blog is written by (Laney) Crowell and her lawyer sidekick Megan Petrus, who concoct entries out of a mixture of their own experiences, stories of people who email the site, and anecdotes of girls they meet socially," wrote Tony Dokoupil of Newsweek.

So I asked Holmes what can be learned from this.

"Skepticism is still really valuable," she said in an email. "Everybody who writes or edits stories about the Internet should know how blogs work and what online communities look like. The fact that a trend piece is controversy-baiting and gets attention but isn't genuinely newsworthy doesn't mean it won't be newsworthy if it turns out to be false."

It's yet another lesson to remind everyone not to be fooled into thinking that what happens online can't be traced.

"To be frank, I think what would have served everyone really well here would have been an actual organic pride in the veracity of what you're publishing," said Holmes. "I think that would have helped the Times identify this problem during editing. I think it would have helped them respond MUCH better the first time, and I think it would have helped them write a much better "Editor's Note" now.

"This was not a hard scam to identify. Our original blog post didn't constitute a full-blown investigation; just a basic application of Internet literacy and skepticism.

"I honestly don't care about the women who write the blog; what particular brand of opportunists they are is not really of any interest to me. But the way this story managed to get into the New York Times continues to bother me, as does their failure to fully acknowledge that the entire thrust of their story was fundamentally false — not "wrong choice of words; we should have said 'satire' instead of 'support group,'" but actually false.

"And perhaps, though now I am sort of waxing philosophical, one of the most important lessons is that if you're trying to write about something as serious and important as the recession and how it affects real people, you don't give that much prominent space in the paper to a story that comes down to "You know what always gets people talking? Really, really hateful women.'"

New York Times Editors' Note: February 25, 2009
An article on Jan. 28 about women who commiserated over dating Wall Street bankers caught in the financial crisis described a group they had formed, Dating a Banker Anonymous, as a support group. That is the name of their blog. Its creators originally told The Times that about 30 women had participated, but since publication, they have said that all involved were friends. Laney Crowell, one of the women who started the blog, said in the article that it was "very tongue in cheek;" she has since described it as a satire that embellishes true experiences for effect. Had the nature of the blog been made clear at the outset, the article would have described it accordingly, not as a support group.

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