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When computers do the news, hoaxes slip in

Lack of human involvement is why hoaxsters love Google News

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When a New Jersey teenager decided to create a fictional story about being hired by one of the Internet's largest companies, he knew just where to spread the news - with the unwitting help of the company itself.

Earlier this month, a link to a press release touting 15-year-old Thomas Vendetta's new job at Google appeared on Google News, a popular site that automatically trolls 4,500 sources for their latest posts. Mr. Vendetta had simply taken advantage of a service that allows the free posting of press releases. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Vendetta had submitted his press release directly to Google News. Also, the original version mischaracterized Google News' popularity.]

The incident, while unusual, illustrates the hazards of Google's automated approach to picking news stories. And it throws an odd spotlight on an entire industry that has sprouted up to ensure that their clients' press releases pop up next to stories from major newspapers when users of Google or Yahoo go trolling for news.

Are these "aggregators" providing the news - or are they diluting it with the fakery, hucksterism, and puffery that affects the rest of the Internet?

Google News says it constantly reviews its sources of news, and it dumped the service that allowed Vendetta's posting. And Yahoo News points out that its staffers make sure the stories labeled as "news" on its homepage come from respected sources.

Still, "It's the wild, wild West, and anything can happen," says Greg Jarboe, president of SEO-PR, one of several publicity firms that helps companies get higher placement on Internet search engines. "I've got to believe that at some point and time, the sheriff's got to get hired."

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