The headline in TechCrunch on Sunday: “Dispatch from the Future: Uber To Purchase 2,500 Driverless Cars From Google.” The dateline: “July 25, 2023.” The lede: “As part of its second-quarter earnings announcement today, local transportation and delivery giant Uber announced its biggest bet on autonomous vehicles yet, saying it would purchase 2,500 driverless cars from Google.”
See anything wrong with this picture? Anything that might tip you off that Uber hasn’t actually agreed to purchase 2,500 driverless cars from Google?
If not—if this all sounds perfectly plausible as a factual report from the present day—you’re not alone. In fact, you wouldn’t even be alone if you decided to go ahead and tweet it as breaking news. Or post it to Slashdot. Or, heck, go ahead and write a whole blog post based on the news, including the fact that Google's third-generation "GX3200" driverless cars act as their own wireless base stations and can travel up to 750 miles on a single charge. Might as well blend in some actual news about Google and Uber from Businessweek while you’re at it. And why not tack on a YouTube video of Google’s driverless car at the end?
And if something goes awry and you realize after you’ve hit “publish” that the whole thing was made up—that today is not in fact July 25, 2023—that Uber does not have second-quarter earnings announcements because it is not a public company—that Google does not have 2,500 driverless cars to sell, even if it wanted to*—that TechCrunch’s “dispatch from the future” was an imaginary “dispatch from the future” as opposed to an actual dispatch from the future written by a time-traveling Ryan Lawler—no big deal. Just write up a quick correction, and be sure to make it cranky. Or, better yet, delete the post and pretend it never happened. After all, you don’t get to be the world’s most popular online newspaper without publishing some blatantly false news now and then.
But what interests me here, aside from my ongoing hate affair with the Mail Online, is why people were so ready to believe that the story was true. Yes, Google had just announced a $258 million investment in Uber, and yes, it is developing the technology for self-driving cars. But it has yet to build a single car of its own, let alone a fleet of third-generation, fuel-cell vehicles that drive off on their own and recharge themselves when you're not using them. And while California is among three states to approve testing of self-driving cars, it will be many years before they hit the consumer market, let alone win permission to go 120 mph in special "autopilot lanes" on California freeways, as Lawler's sci-fi story asserted.
Some were quick to blame TechCrunch for posting the “too subtle” fake story in the first place. But this isn’t the first time the site has dabbled in speculative fiction, and as author Ryan Lawler told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, “I thought it was pretty well couched with the hed and dateline.” Lawler chalked up the misunderstanding to people being “dense,” which is a bit harsh if he’s talking about the average reader but spot-on if he’s referring to fellow tech bloggers who ran with his piece.
I have two theories as to how this happened. The first is that we've become so inured to breathless headlines about futuristic technologies that we've worn down our B.S. detectors. Every day brings new reports of seemingly implausible technological advances, from mind-reading headsets to jetpacks to races of genetically engineered genius babies. Much fewer and farther between are the stories that cast a critical eye on these supposed breakthroughs. Debunkings just don't get as many page-views.
The second theory is more cynical, and disturbing: A lot of bloggers don't actually read stories before aggregating them. Sites get more traffic the more content they post, and the faster they post it, which makes it tempting to skim a story and slap on a clicky headline rather than taking the time to understand it. At a time in the media business when unique visitors and Facebook likes drive editorial agendas, some outlets may find it more profitable to write up every wild claim that comes along than to go to the trouble of figuring out which are legitimate and which are bunk.
Sure, that results in a little embarrassment now and then. But writers who make these types of mistakes surely take comfort in the knowledge that few other journalists will judge them too harshly for it. After all, most of us can imagine making a similar mistake ourselves. In fact, Ezra Klein's Wonkblog (of which I am generally a fan) seems to have run a post poking fun at Slashdot for picking up the driverless car story just hours before Klein himself fell for it. (That post is now gone.)
As much as I pride myself on treating fantastical claims with due skepticism, I'm well aware when I throw stones at the New York Post or the Mail Online that my own house is not iron-clad. That said, I'll keep throwing them, and I think others should too—because if there is a prize for being among the first to pounce on a buzz-worthy story, then there ought to be at least some penalty for being blatantly and laughably wrong.
Correction, Wednedsay, Aug. 28, 12:18 p.m.: Due to a typographical error, this post originally stated that Google "does have" 2,500 driverless cars to sell. It should have stated that Google "does not have" 2,500 driverless cars to sell.