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Facebook's phony Bhutto pranks media

Journalism 2.0

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Lazy hacks have been suckered by the miracle of Web 2.0, again. This time it's not Wikipedia, but a phoney Facebook profile created for 19-year old Bilawal Lawalib that found its way onto the journalists' clipboards - and out back onto the Web.

Following the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, 19-year old Oxford student Bilawal Zardari was named joint leader of the Pakistan People's Party. Hacks rushed for information about the lad, and with a few clicks, found what they were looking for.

"Thanks to the internet age it is possible to get a glimpse of the life the new joint leader of Benazir Bhutto's PPP leads as a history fresher at Christ Church college, with all the newly forged friendships and nights out university inductions inevitably bring," marvelled Rachel Williams in The Grauniad.

But at least she found the right man.

Another Facebook account, one created by a prankster, has so far been quoted by dozens of news outlets including the Telegraph, Agence France Presse, and TV news networks. The NYT fingers this prankster as the culprit, although why this claim deserves credence is a good question.

Last week I suggested that creating fictional identities - complete with fictional biographical information - might be a useful way to counter both commercial and state-run data harvesting operations. The problem with Facebook is that it doesn't permit users to create fictional personas. But as an indication of the confusion this could cause - Facebook has gone and disabled both Bilawals just to be sure.

In October, dozens of British obituary writers were caught cutting and pasting from Wikipedia after the death of TV composer Ronnie Hazlehurst. They included the odd "fact" that Hazlehurst had come out of a 20-year retirement to write a teen band hit five years ago. But that "fact" only ever lived on Wikipedia - and took just Google and a few seconds to disprove.

Newspaper editors and TV current affairs executives are currently agonizing over why their audiences are disappearing. Don't incidents like this answer the question? You don't need to pay an intermediary to find dodgy information for you, when you can find dodgy information for yourself much faster. ®

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