Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
How The Washington Post built — and will be building on — its “Knowledge Map” feature
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 19, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

How URL spoofing can put libelous words into news orgs’ mouths

You really have to question everything you see on the web, even the supposedly sacrosanct URL. (That ubiquitous initialism stands for “uniform resource locator,” as in, one locator for every resource on the Internet.)

Earlier today, when I saw an Independent story about a Kate Middleton jelly bean with this incredible URL, I just had to tweet it as an example of — I don’t know, sabotage? an amusing mistake? — in a newspaper’s web operation. So did Slate, and dozens of others. Our friend (and former Nieman Fellow) Rosita Boland was first out of the gate: “It’s a spoof!”

Turns out that, with Independent URLs, you can change any part of the story slug and the URL will still work, as long as the following number is intact. Try it: All of these URLs (and any other variation) go to the same story:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/kate-middleton-jelly-bean-2269573.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/green-bay-packer-news-2269573.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/the-latest-from-libya-2269573.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/turtles-are-fun-2269573.html

Or, as Jason Bartz put it, stingingly:

@NiemanLab No. Stop perpetuating that rumor. It’s bad programming. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/niemanlab-needs-to-do-research-2269573.html

The spoof is possible because of a well-intentioned — and common — SEO trick. Some news organizations use numbers, not words, for story slugs. And numbers are not search-engine friendly, so content-management systems can be engineered to add the story headline to the URL.

As independent.co.uk editor Martin King put it, “It was designed as a feature and not a bug — and we are not alone in this problem.”

Indeed, they’re not — and it leaves many news organizations open to anyone who might want to pretend an outlet is saying something they’re not. Let’s say someone wanted to pretend that lots of news organizations were reporting that President Obama was born in Kenya. (He wasn’t, by the way.) All of these web addresses work just fine:

Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-was-born-in-kenya/2011/04/18/AFUFQN2D_story.html

St. Petersburg Times: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/fire/obama-was-born-in-kenya/1164650

The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/obama-was-born-in-kenya/article1990967/

San Jose Mercury News: http://www.mercurynews.com/science/obama-was-born-in-kenya/ci_17876331?nclick_check=1

Detroit Free Press: http://www.freep.com/article/20110419/BLOG40/110419042/obama-was-born-in-kenya

Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/#!5793509/obama-was-born-in-kenya

Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2291040/obama-was-born-in-kenya

And each of them leave the faked URL sitting right up there in your web browser’s address bar, ready to be tweeted, emailed, or otherwise shared. That’s a recipe for confusion — and maybe legal issues, if someone can insert a libelous URL into one of your stories and spread it around.

(Other news organizations allow faked URLs to go through, but immediately forward the reader to the accurate URL; see this NPR story, for instance, where the Obama/Kenya fakery is removed from the address bar as soon as it’s entered.)

Let The Independent’s problem today be a moment for other news orgs to see how easy their own URLs are to fake. And for those of us who accidentally shared their fake URL on Twitter, let it be a reminder to look before you tweet. At this writing, bit.ly statistics show the fake Independent URL has been clicked over 61,000 times from over 6,600 tweets and over 8,000 Facebook likes, shares, and comments — and that’s just data from one URL shortening service.

POSTED     April 19, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
How The Washington Post built — and will be building on — its “Knowledge Map” feature
The Post is looking to create a database of “supplements” — categorized pieces of text and graphics that help give context around complicated news topics — and add it as a contextual layer across lots of different Post stories.
How 7 news organizations are using Slack to work better and differently
Here’s how Fusion, Vox, Quartz, Slate, the AP, The Times of London, and Thought Catalog are using Slack for workflow — and which features they wish the platform would add.
The New York Times built a robot to help make article tagging easier
Developed by the Times R&D lab, the Editor tool scans text to suggest article tags in real time. But the automatic tagging system won’t be moving into the newsroom soon.
What to read next
1119
tweets
New Pew data: More Americans are getting news on Facebook and Twitter
A new study from the Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation finds that more Americans of all ages, races, genders, education levels, and incomes are using Twitter and Facebook to consume news.
701Newsonomics: The halving of America’s daily newsrooms
If you’re lucky enough to have the right deep-pocketed owner buy your paper and steady it, you’ve won the lottery. If you’re in a town whose paper is owned by the better chains, or committed local ownership, your loss will probably be mitigated. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
575How 7 news organizations are using Slack to work better and differently
Here’s how Fusion, Vox, Quartz, Slate, the AP, The Times of London, and Thought Catalog are using Slack for workflow — and which features they wish the platform would add.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Wired
The Bay Citizen
The Daily Voice
Honolulu Civil Beat
St. Louis Beacon
The Miami Herald
Journal Register Co.
The New York Times
Press+
Publish2
NBC News
The Times of London