Google takes down United Airlines ... unintentionally

Posted on September 10, 2008

Here's a new version of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" story.

As reported by the New York Times, on Sept. 7, a link to a 2002 story about United Airlines pending bankruptcy appeared in the Florida Sun Sentinel's most popular business articles section of the website. From there, it was picked up by Google News, and then someone working at Income Securities Advisers sent out a summary of it on Bloomberg News, and then ... well, UAL's stock fell quicker than a sumo wrestler on a tight rope.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered. If this story could be found only in the archives at the Sun Sentinel, how did it end up as a popular current story? Why didn't Google News recognize it as an old story? Why didn't the person at Income Securities Advisers see that it was from 2002?

So far, most people are blaming the computers, when in my opinion, people had to be working in cahoots to make this happen. Whether it was intentional or not would be difficult to interpret. If you have some type of control over a news source that Google News uses, your stories will get picked up. And if there's no date on the story - or, better yet, Google News cannot determine the date easily - then there's no justifiable reason why people not paying attention will even realize the story is out of date.

United's stock prices recovered pretty rapidly after the gaffe, but I can't help but wonder what would happen if old news circulating about warring countries appeared currently on multiple news sites. I hope that people would have enough sense to read the article or do separate fact-checking, but considering that news sources themselves rarely do this when trying to scoop others, how can we expect the general public to do this?