Was the drop in UAL shares engineered?

A bit of lunchtime discussion about the whole United Airlines fake bankruptcy mess brought about an interesting theory. The reason the story from 2002 was picked up in the first place was because the headline was in the “Most Viewed” stories tab which is calculated automatically, most likely by looking at pageviews.

So the obvious question is, what is a story from 2002 doing in the Most Viewed box? Pageviews can be easily gamed using a bot to hit a page and bump up the count. Today, The Wall Street Jounal reports that according to the Sun-Sentinel, “a single visit during a low-traffic period early Sunday morning pushed the undated story onto the list of most popular business news of its South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper’s Web site.”

Details of what the Sun-Sentinel servers saw are in a press release put out by the Tribune company. Further reading of the release includes this tidbit:

Importantly, the URL for the old story did not change when the link appeared on the website’s business section. . . Our records also show that the Google search agent had previously crawled this same story numerous times, including as recently as last week.

The implication is that Google’s crawlers should have known better that this was an old URL and that it should not have made it into Google News. To Google’s defense, I’m sure they crawl many front pages of newspaper sites where the URL never changes so any such URL-dating would have to be done selectively.

The latest news is that the SEC is now involved to see if there was, “any improper behavior” and I’m sure they are going to follow the money and see if there was anyone that profited from short-selling of UAL. Either way, the finger pointing begins and it’s going to get ugly. UAL stock closed today at $11.09, still about a dollar short of when this whole thing started on Monday.

Taking your finger off the button

Shares of United Airlines dropped 75% yesterday because of a poorly designed template. The Google News blog has all the gory details including screenshots of the Florida Sun-Sentinal site which included links to a old story, UAL files for Bankrupcy, in its automated “Most Viewed” sidebar widget.

The Google News robot crawled that link and because the destination page had the default header and no date stamp of when the story was originally published, Google News incorrectly interpreted the story from 2002 as today’s news. The dominos began to fall as downstream news agencies that obviously were short on fact-checkers re-circulated this old news as something new eventually finding its way on to the Bloomberg wire service.

This has happened in the past but never with such devistating consequences (UAL stock eventually recovered but still ended the day down 11% and is still down $1.50 from before the incident as of today). Recall the false Engadget-iPhone rumor and, Bloomberg again, which had been duped in the past, when a crafty short-seller found a way to mainline a fake story into the news desk of a lower tier press release service back in 2000. One can only wonder if this news will have an impact on the SEC’s recent recommendation that websites can serve as the official channel for financial earnings.

The news industry is under seige and there’s more pressure than ever to balance speed and economy of automation with the wisdom and judgement of human editors. But like riding a bicycle without your hands – you need to keep your eye on the road or you might end up looking like a fool.