Google News Snafu Wreaks Havoc on United Airlines Stocks

This goes to show you the power of Google: when old news, masking ‘new’ news, gets re-distributed through Google’s all-mighty Engine of Search, it can have serious repercussions. 

Yesterday, a six year old story about United Airlines was picked up and fed into the googlified news pipeline as though it were a recent and relevant news story.

By the time it hit the Bloomberg wire, it was all over. United Airlines’ stock fell a dramatic 75% on Monday — and all because of something old becoming new again.

But something that didn’t make it something true again.

What was the unlikely culprit behind a 75 percent drop in United Airlines’ stock on Monday? An erroneous Google News search, that’s what.

The problem was that an investor news service, the South Florida-based Income Securities Advisors, found a Chicago Tribune article from 2002 via Google News and consequently included it in that day’s news digest–which wound up on Bloomberg’s news wire. The content of the story wasn’t the sort you want to be publishing if it isn’t true: that United Airlines had filed for bankruptcy. Considering the state of the airline industry today, it was by no means unbelievable, especially considering that United only emerged from bankruptcy in 2006.

By the time United put out a release denying the news, its stock had plummeted 75 percent from $12.30 on Friday to less than $3. It eventually climbed back up to $10.49; Chicago Tribune parent company Tribune Co. pulled the 6-year-old story from its online archives to avoid further confusion. But Nasdaq, which lists United Airline’s stock (UAL), decided against rescinding trades that had happened as a result of the mishap.

Income Securities Advisors later said the story had turned up in a bankruptcy-related Google News search, with no time stamp attached. But different accounts of how it exactly happened upon the story don’t fully add up.

The Tribune Co. effectively blamed Google’s automated news search process, where headlines are filtered by bots and algorithms rather than by humans. The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that the six-year-old story “prominently popped up” in a news search, a position usually reserved for very recent news. The reason for its prominence, Google later explained, was that it had wound up on a list of most-read stories on the Web site of the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, another Tribune Co. newspaper. Increased traffic to the story, Google said, set off the bot–as did the fact that the day of the week that the original story was published was a Monday and hence lined up.

Bloomberg has admitted that it doesn’t verify the accuracy of the news that comes over its financial data service through third-party partners. But, the Chicago Tribune reported after the fact, there’s no evidence of malicious stock manipulation in this case.

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