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Google, Hurricane Sandy, and Kim Jong-Un have all been the subject of false reports gone viral -- better get used to it

Despite what you may have read, Google is not buying an obscure Wi-Fi hotspot provider for an outrageous sum of money. But for a few hours on Monday, you can be forgiven for having believed that, as the news came blasting from dozens of seemingly reputable sources.

If you saw a headline screaming "ICOA acquired by Google for $400 million" or something like it, you saw a story that wasn't in the least bit true. Persons as yet unknown accessed the database at PRWeb and distributed a bogus press release about the acquisition. Dozens of sites -- including TechCrunch, BusinessInsider, Gizmodo, The Next Web, and yes, InfoWorld via the IDG News Service -- ran the story without bothering to check whether it was real.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely names the Golden Gobblers and digital dodos of 2012. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Almost as bad was the reaction afterward, once AllThingsD revealed that the story was bogus. Most of these sites posted a corrected story and/or a mea culpa. Some continued to host the fake story without any updates, and some just wiped the story off their servers like it never happened. (ZDnet I'm talking to you.)

The current working theory is that this was a pump-and-dump scam gone viral. ICOA, which trades on the over-the-counter market for a fraction of a penny, saw a surge in its stock price and trading volume on Monday -- presumably by the same jokers who wrote the fake press release -- though how much cash the scam generated is still unknown.

This story raises a whole lot of questions, not the least of which are a) why are all these reporters rewriting press releases instead of doing actual reporting? and b) do any of these people know how to use a phone? Last time I checked, Google and ICOA's numbers were still in the book. In fact, ICOA's number was published on the fake release itself.

The fallout: A lot of bickering on Twitter between journalists who got pwned by the fake story and those who didn't, and a big black eye for the automated press release business.

AllThings D-TechCrunch ICOA Twitter fight

In a brief statement, PRWeb's parent company Vocus blamed identity thieves for stealing someone else's credentials to issue the release and claimed it "reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day."

That, in turn, inspired SearchEngineLand's Danny Sullivan to take Vocus to the woodshed, giving the company a thorough spanking about how its service has been abused by all kinds of bottom feeders, including Viagra spammers. In fact, anybody with $159 in their pocket can sign up for PRWeb and distribute their own release, bogus or otherwise. For $199, they can gain access to "news" sites that redistribute unedited press releases for a fee, like the venerable Associated Press. It too got burned by this bogus story and is worthy of a good caning.

As Sullivan notes, Google itself contributed mightily to the spread of disinformation via Google News, which as I write this still carries the inaccurate headlines (as do Bing and Yahoo).

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