X-Surface: A Cautionary Tale

The recent X-Surface hoax resulted in some sheepish journalists, but what is the right call to make. A look at the decisions faced by writers who receive a tip-off or rumour.

Just as GameSkinny finds its feet and new contributors look to provide content, an important lesson about integrity and fact-checking surfaced elsewhere on the internet.

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Looking Beneath the Surface

A blogger sent a series of emails to internet news sites, claiming to be a Microsoft employee and giving details of the 2013 release strategy and technical specifications of the new Xbox and a juicy scoop on a “standalone portable gaming system” called the X-Surface.

It was an elaborate and very well-written hoax.

But the temptation of delivering an exclusive is a powerful lure. With such a believable and detailed email from a “Microsoft source”, it is easy to imagine the author of the first news story to break was desperately trying to put something out as quickly as possible, aware that they were unlikely to have been the only recipient of the email.

The coverage then rippled outward from the initial story, with other sites echoing the rumour whilst citing their source as the initial news site. The result was a cascade of misinformation.

It’s a tough call for the the writer to make. The information, false or not, is circulating. If all attempts to find some other supporting evidence to confirm the veracity of the information fail, should the story just be dropped? Is it inappropriate to perpetuate a rumour even if it is expressly presented as such? Surely if the known facts are presented – that there is only a secondary source and no other evidence available – it is down to the reader to take the story as presented and to think for themselves.

However…

Pushing Boundaries

I witnessed a similar misinformation cascade occur following events that took place at an EVE Online gathering early last year.

Some coarse, drunken behaviour from a key member of the community was livestreamed to a worldwide audience. In the footage of an official presentation, the individual read out a message he received from a player  who had been the victim of griefing and claimed to suffer from depression. The speaker then encouraged his fellow players to seek the player in-game in order to further ruin his game experience to see if he would kill himself. It was tasteless humour and inadvisable content for a public address certainly, but not inappropriate for the audience being addressed at the event.

However, there was a whirlwind of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that rippled through the gaming press as the speaker was increasingly villainised as a “cyberbully”. Each story latched onto the last, with the common cyberbully theme making it an attractive story for many journalists, but a lack of significant fact-checking became evident in many of the resultant articles.

Ultimately, the whole thing was a storm in a teacup, the supposed victim of the story was non-plussed and largely indifferent to the whole affair. But the gaming press made life very uncomfortable for the alleged perpetrator. It became a witch hunt which had an impact on his gaming life and the personal lives of him and his family.

The Moral of the Story

I’m not putting myself on any moral high ground here, but I am interested in developing my writing and journalistic skills in a positive way. I think it is well worth reflecting on these events and learning from the mistakes of others, lest I make them myself.

Personally, in most cases, I cannot see the harm in delivering unattributable information as long as it is presented as such. But it really depends on the context. It is clear there can be ramifications to encouraging the spread of false or inaccurate information and care should be taken to consider what those might be. If people can be adversely affected, then the responsible writer has a duty of care.

I’ll certainly be doing my best to double-check information, find corroborating sources and present information clearly and accurately.

Unless, of course, it is a hoax, parody, fiction, or troll – all of which I’ve been known to write. In which case all bets are off. 

More on this: Game bloggers aren’t journalists, are they? by Shaddoe

 

Source: Tumblr (X-Surface) via Pocket-Lint.com and others

Xbox 720 Concept: BostInnoJustUsGeeks

EVE Fanfest Image: Polygon

Garfield Image: RobMansfield.net


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Author
Mat Westhorpe
Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.