HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Prairie news companion: Why The Tulsa Frontier thinks it can succeed with a hard paywall and no ads
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.
Prairie news companion: Why The Tulsa Frontier thinks it can succeed with a hard paywall and no ads
Launched by the former publisher of The Tulsa World, The Frontier is betting on a high-subscription-cost model — $30 per month! — to reach a core group of civically engaged locals.
Open-mic journalism: How The Arizona Republic found success with storytelling events
The four-year-old program has helped boost the newspaper’s events business and helped strengthen relationships with the community through nights of storytelling.
Newsonomics: Buying Yelp — and making it the next core of the local news and information business
The pricetag would be high, but it might be worth it to reassemble one part of the old newspaper bundle — tying together local news and local services.
What to read next
973
tweets
The State of the News Media 2015: Newspapers ↓, smartphones ↑
The annual omnibus report from Pew outlines a story of continued trends more than radical change.
576The Upshot uses geolocation to push readers deeper into data
The New York Times story changes its text depending on where you’re reading it: “It’s a fine line between a smarter default and being creepy.”
424Knight Foundation invests $1 million in creator-driven podcast collective Radiotopia
The money will help PRX’s collective of public media-minded shows develop sustainable business models and expand with new shows and producers.
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 ➚
Conde Nast
The Christian Science Monitor
WyoFile
Outside.in
La Nación
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Los Angeles Times
Yahoo
West Seattle Blog
Newsmax
PolitiFact
MSNBC