A Helpful Reminder That Rumors Are Not Facts

The tech press falls for an Xbox hoax.

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An evil-but-clever anonymous game fan, writing under the name X-Surface, has done us all a favor by showing us how little fact-checking some news sources do before they start treating random rumors as fact:

At 1:41am GMT today I sent out an email to a bunch of gaming sites claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on the new Xbox.

I made up every single word of it along with a couple of specs copied from other rumours that have been appearing on the Internet.

This was a bit of an experiment to see just how easy it is to get a fake story taken seriously. And it is shockingly easy in the games industry.

British tech site Pocket-lint’s Rik Henderson not only reported on the rumor, but kept forgetting that it was random unverified scuttlebutt from a source which he had no reason to trust:

The Xbox 720 will not be called that when it is finally announced. Instead, Microsoft will be reverting to the name of its first games console released 11 years ago, Xbox.

In addition, it will be seen as a hub to a number of devices to carry an “X” branding, one of which will be the much-rumoured 7-inch gaming tablet, which Pocket-lint has learnt will be called X-Surface, not Xbox Surface as previously thought.

The X-Surface will not be a Windows 8 or Windows RT device, we have been told by a tipster very close to the project who, naturally, wishes to remain anonymous. Instead, it will be a standalone portable gaming system. On launch, we are informed, it will be able to access the games, music and video hubs of the new Xbox, but will not have any apps of its own. It will not have a desktop as part of its operating system, rather be entirely focused on playing full console-quality games.

After Henderson wrote that, a bunch of other sites picked up on the “scoop” with various degrees of credulousness. (To be fair, Gizmodo UK’s Gary Cutlack covered it mostly to say that several parts of it sounded unlikely.)

Once the prankster revealed all, Pocket-lint retracted the story. But it doesn’t seem terribly sheepish about it all. Actually, the site seems to say that it acted reasonably, and that the hoax may prevent it from reporting real news in the future:

There were no outlandish claims – such as the next Kinect will be a inside a hat or the new controller will look like Charlie Chaplin’s moustache. So we gave him the benefit of the doubt because there was little reason not to, considering the content and what we have heard before. We did suspect that we could be taking a punt on the validity, as the paragraph above and in the original story shows, but decided to publish anyway because, like you, we like to read rumours and hearsay. Let us not forget that iPhone 6 rumours appeared the same day as the iPhone 5 was launched, but we still want to read them.

Sadly then, X-Surface has fooled us, and in doing so has perhaps swayed us against bringing you genuine tips in future, such as the Opera Ice browser exclusive we ran at the end of last week, which also started out as an anonymous tip, but grew into so much more. That’s perhaps the saddest part of all.

Sorry to disagree, Pocket-lint, but I think the saddest part of this is that you show little sign of understanding that you messed up.

What can we learn from this?

  • Any news story or blog post which segues from rumormongering to stating aspects of the rumor as definitive fact is too sloppy and confused to be trusted;
  • Items which rehash other sites’ rehashed rumors are especially dangerous;
  • We who read these pieces are in no position to gauge the trustworthiness of the tipster.

I’d love to think that the industry I work in will learn from escapades such as this and the recent saga of the fake Google acquisition. When the tech press giddily relays everything it hears, without skepticism, fact-checking or analysis, we obscure the news rather than reporting it. To riff on what Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac’s work, what Pocket-lint did wasn’t journalism — it was typing.