“Good that the jerk died”: When Web links go bad
The Indian Express published a story, filed from Lucknow, about the son of a local BJP bigwig who died after a security guard at a hospital shot him. The gunfight began after another guard told him and his flunkies to move his car from an illegal parking spot. The situation escalated, the goons beat the first guard, somebody drew his gun and that was that.
The Express told a straight story, but when the Web link (or “URL”) circulated on Twitter, someone made a change that made it look like the Express was expressing an opinion.
Here is the link: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/acha-hua-margaya-saala/947200/
Look at the second half of it:
“Acha hua mar gaya saala.”
More or less: “It’s good that the jerk died.”
That’s a comment best reserved for the opinion pages, and it’s not a particularly sophisticated or kind comment. My initial questions when I saw this on Thursday were: is there any way that someone outside the Express could have changed the URL? Or is this something that happened inside the newsroom?
My colleague Saqib Ahmed answered: yes, you can change a link without breaking it. Indian Express URLs, he said, contain three parts: the main website, the first part of the individual ID of a story, and then the second part. Look at this example:
http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ + obama-supports-gay-marriage/+ 947899/
You can change that to:
http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ + romney-supports-gay-marriage/+ 947899/
And it STILL will work. You can’t rewrite an article, but you can rewrite the link. A likely reason for this is “search engine optimization,” goosing URLs so they can include names and terms that people often search for, ensuring that the result shows up at the top of Web searches on Google, Yahoo and other search sites.
This still doesn’t tell us, however, who wrote the link text. It could have been anyone who speaks English and Hindi … just a few hundred million suspects.
Steve Myers from the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida, says that this is not entirely new. Look at this article from April 2011. Some news websites, including Reuters, don’t make their links this way, which makes them harder to mess around with. But many do, and as the gunfight story illustrates, the results can be embarrassing to say the least.
(Thanks to my colleagues and friends Saqib Ahmed, Shakeel Sobhan and Divya Sharma in Bangalore, who helped me understand how this works. Thanks to Nivedita Bhattacharjee in our Chicago bureau for making me do the Hindi translation on my own rather than just giving it to me.)
(This blog post appeared in a rougher form on my personal blog at http://bobbymacreports.tumblr.com )