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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.