Beware: tools for creating fake news (Virtual Skeptics)

Virtual Skeptics logoOn Virtual Skeptics this week I talked about the flip side of this website’s normal topic – tools to create misinformation instead of tools to debunk it. Of course any tool designed to work with real information can be used to distort as well.

We saw that this week when a news hoax was perpetrated via CNN’s “iReport” site – a place for citizens to submit journalism.  It was a poorly written prediction of apocalypse for the year 2041 which credible sources like Phil Plait quickly debunked. Many sites including Doubtful News chided CNN for taking 22 hours to notice and take down the bogus story.

But there are also online tools designed specifically for creating hoaxes like this. They are usually intended for playing pranks on friends and the like. A new one emerged this week, which was my topic on Virtual Skeptics. Since my segment is very short (just over 6 minutes) I thought I would go ahead and embed it here so you can see what was discussed.  Video and supporting links after the jump…

The new tool is SHRTURL.CO and it was created by Alexander Griffioen, a member of the staff of the website The Next Web. I found out about it via On The Media’s TLDR blog.  It’s also appeared on Reddit and elsewhere. All skeptics should be aware they may see hoaxes created with it.

As I said my segment is only about 6 minutes, this embed is set up to take you right to my part of the show, which starts at 50:34.  Bob Blaskiewicz talked about the CNN iReport hoax right before me, as you’ll see when I start:



The other news hoax creation tool I mentioned was NewsJack – created by Dan Schultz of the MIT Media Lab.  Both SHRTURL and NewsJack are based on browser technology created by the Mozilla Foundation now called X-Ray Goggles.

I noticed something shortly after tweeting the link to my bogus BBC front page during the show. (That link should expire shortly after I post this, if SHRTURL abides by its own rules). Slightly altered web pages – especially ones which have a “login” box somewhere on them – have a tendency to set off automatic alarms designed to detect web-based phishing attacks. I noticed my own SHRTURL links were being flagged by both the URL service and my Google Chrome browser as being potentially malicious. Other Virtual Skeptics viewers reported the Mozilla Firefox browser also puts up alarm messages on some links. This may reduce the effectiveness of these pranks. However, I found the warning messages only came up on some links, and only some of the time.

Another problem these sites may run into is copyright issues regarding the logos and other artwork being displayed. I recall NewsJack got some flack when it first appeared over that sort of thing, it remains to be seen if SHRTURL will attract that sort of attention too.

In any case, do be aware of SHRTURL and NewsJack.  All skeptics should be able to instantly notice that unusual web pages whose URLs start with or are actually just simple web pranks or trolling.

Full show notes for this week’s Virtual Skeptics and more here.

Update June 11 2014: A commenter over on the Virtual Skeptics blog has made me aware of yet another service like this, called It appears to be a clone of SHRTURL and was started on June 7. So beware URLs that start with that as well.

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