The ZDnet/Iran affair: Who's the Yahoo now?

A prominent blogger accuses Yahoo of human rights violations, Yahoo denies it. Who's right? Who knows? Welcome to the brave new world of Web 2.0 journalism

Richard Koman at ZDnet published a blog post late last night that amply demonstrates nearly everything that's right and wrong about Web journalism.

Using information he received from an Iranian blogger, Koman accused Yahoo of handing over the account information for 200,000 Iranian bloggers to the country's authorities -- an act not unlike handing a list of synagogue members over to the Nazis -- in exchange for the Iranian government lifting its ban on Yahoo access.

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That's an incredibly serious allegation, one I'd suspect a reputable newspaper would not have published without some kind of second- or third-party corroboration, as well as a response from Yahoo. But this is the blogosphere, where the normal rules no longer seem to apply.

It gets worse. What Koman phrased as a question ("Did Yahoo provide Iran with names of 200,000 users?") became "Exclusive! Yahoo Provided Iran With Names of 200,000 Users" on Digg, Techmeme, and elsewhere. Whether that was ZDnet's doing or some overeager Digger, I don't know. But that often happens with stories like this.

(Repeating accusations is virtually the same as making them, even if you phrase it as a question. So for the record: I'm not saying Yahoo did anything remotely like this. At this point, we don't know. And my gut tells me the whole story is BS. )

Yahoo's initial response nearly 12 hours later was a lone tweet:

The ZDnet allegations are false. No Yahoo! representative met w/ any Iranian officials or disclosed user data to Iranian gov't.

As I was writing this, ZDnet updated the post to include Yahoo's more formal denial:

The allegations in the story are false. Neither Yahoo! nor any Yahoo! representative has met with or communicated with any Iranian officials, and Yahoo! has not disclosed user data to the Iranian government. Yahoo! was founded on the principle that access to information and communications tools can improve people’s lives, and Yahoo! is committed to protecting and promoting freedom of expression and privacy. To learn more about our human rights efforts, please visit:

So: Either Yahoo is lying or Koman got some bad information. I'm no great fan of faceless corporations, and lord knows Yahoo has been guilty of handing over information to repressive regimes in the past, but I'm going with Yahoo here. That story just seems too over the top -- and the sources too vague and self interested -- to be believable.

Here's usually where blogger/bloviators like Jeff Jarvis like to step in, puff themselves up, and talk about what they call "process journalism." You report a rumor or an unsubstantiated claim as soon as you can, then update it as more information comes in. If the rumor ends up being false, eventually that becomes part of the story too. The process of reporting becomes as public as the story itself. Sounds good, right?

(For a slightly different take on process journalism in action, see "Steve Jobs Arrested For Shoplifting.")

Of course, when the rumor turns out to be complete BS, the damage has already been done. As the old saying goes, you can't unring a bell. In the 12 hours between the allegation appearing and Yahoo's denial, the story spread. Some people will only see that Digg headline and not Yahoo's denial. It will become a "fact" inside their head that's unlikely to ever be dislodged.

[Update #1: At 5 pm last Friday, ZDnet editor el jefe Larry Dignan officially retracted the story, for the same reasons I noted above -- the lack of any corroboration from a disinterested source. That was the right thing to do.]

[Update #2: According to TechCrunch's Paul Carr, Dignan just happened to be spending that day at a Yahoo press event. I hope he had someone tasting his food.]

And when it involves things like a company's reputation, the stock market responds -- as Apple stock did to bogus rumors about Steve Job's "heart attack" a year ago. Sure, the Web got the story right in the end, but that doesn't help the people who sold at a loss, does it?

In the "normal" way of reporting (i.e., pre-blogosphere), the reporter would have gone to his editor, who might have held the story until he got a response from Yahoo, then decided whether it was worth running. It might never have appeared at all.

Of course, it may also turn out that Koman's right and Yahoo is full of it. In which case, way to go Richard! But I'm not putting any money on that.

[Update #3: There is no update #3. What do you think this is, process journalism?]

So what's right about this? The speed at which news can travel, the informal paths it can take, the difficulty of suppressing news people in power may not want you to see. For example: I found this story via Computerworld's IT blogwatch author Richi Jennings, who tweeted out Yahoo's denial, which found its way into my Facebook feed. That wouldn't have happened a couple of years ago, either.

Should the blogger have held onto the story until he had more information? Has the Web improved journalism or made it worse? Chime in below or e-mail me:

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