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When computers do the news, hoaxes slip in

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In Vendetta's case, he immediately regretted his actions after his hoax was uncovered - "I AM SORRY," he declared in an online message - and the press release was taken down. But the countless other people who try to use Google News and its rival sites to their advantage - including other hoaxsters, publicists, political activists - are not so apologetic.

The lack of human involvement is a big part of why publicists and hoaxsters love Google News. Computer algorithms, not people, choose which news stories, blog entries, and press releases appear first when someone types in a term like "iPod" or "Dick Cheney."

Until recently, press releases - which turn 100 this year - depended entirely on editors and reporters to gain traction. If the press didn't pay attention, the releases, like the proverbial falling tree in the forest, didn't make a sound.

The Internet has changed that, bringing press releases to the public. Anyone with the proper fee - or, in some cases, no money at all - can use publicity services to post releases that will be listed on Google News. Plenty of people are taking advantage of this opportunity: On a recent afternoon, a Google News search for the word "technology" pulled up 162,000 items, 34,400 of which were identified as press releases.

"The fundamental shift is that the media is no longer intermediating between the reader and the news source," Mr. Jarboe says.

There's plenty at stake: Jarboe reported that one of his clients, Southwest Airlines, made $2.5 million in ticket sales with the help of press releases posted on the Internet about special offers.

And why not? Yahoo News, which allows access to both press releases and news stories, averaged more than 25 million visitors a month in 2005, according to comScore, making it the most popular news site on the Internet; Google News clocked in with nearly 8 million.

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