Here’s a cautionary tale from Vmyths, the virus myths website, on how urban legends are born.
Vmyths says that Reuters News Agency filed a report from Singapore last week quoting anti-virus manufacturer Trend Micro (makers of PC-cillin) as saying computer virus attacks cost global businesses an estimated $55 billion in damages in 2003. That’s a lot of damage. Two spokesmen at Trend Micro have since called Vmyths to “correct” the report. One said it was “wrong.” Another said Trend Micro “cannot gauge a damage value — because they simply don’t collect the required data”.
Vmyths says the report was later pulled, but without any explanation. I’m not so sure. I can still see it on Reuters’ own website, Forbes, Yahoo, The Hindustan Times, ZDNet, MSNBC, ComputerWorld, The New York Times, etc etc. And the story still sits in Reuters’ official database, Factiva (co-owned by Dow Jones, the company I work for.) I’ve sought word from Trend Micro (I wasn’t able to reach anyone in Taiwan, Singapore or Tokyo by phone and emails have gone unanswered for 10 hours; I guess Chinese New Year has already started. Perhaps the U.S. will be more responsive). Emails to the author of the Reuters report have gone unanswered so far.
As Vmyths points out, it’s great that Trend Micro has tried to set the record straight. But if the story was wrong, why is it still out there on the web, and, in particular, on Reuters’ own sites? And why hasn’t Trend Micro put something up on its website pointing out the report is wrong? Has Trend Micro done everything it can to get things right? Was the report wrong, or the original data?
This episode highlights how, in the age of the Internet, an apparently erroneous story can spread so rapidly and extensively, from even such an authoritative source as Reuters, and how hard it is to correct errors once the Net gets hold of them. In the pre-WWW world (and speaking as a former Reuters journalist) it was relatively simple process to correct something: overwrite it from the proprietary Reuters screen with a corrected version, withdraw the story, or, in the case of subscribers taking a Reuters feed (newspapers, radio stations and what-have-you), sending a note correcting the story. Proprietary databases could be corrected. So long as the story wasn’t already in print, you were usually safe. Nowadays it’s not so easy.
Vmyths is right: Expect to see the $55 billion figure pop up all over the place. (Of course, until we know for sure, it’s possible that the real myth that comes out of this could be that the story was wrong, when in fact it was right.) Ow, I’m getting a headache.