Billions of dollars in market cap. Gone. In minutes.
It wouldn't be surprising to learn of Apple shareholder heart attacks after a rumor that Apple CEO Steve Jobs suffered a massive one resulted in a quick but rapid drop in Apple's stock price last Friday.
The rumor, of course, was just that - a rumor. A false one. And like most that turn out to be untrue, this rumor has an interesting story.
Early last Friday, an as-yet-unidentified "citizen journalist" who the Securities and Exchange Commission is now looking for posted the rumor on iReport.com, a service run by CNN that bears the tagline "Unedited. Unfiltered. News."
The first two words are certainly not in question; the latter certainly is.
Of course, the iReport.com website notes:
"The views and content on this site are solely those of the iReport.com contributors. CNN makes no guarantees about the content or the coverage on iReport.com!"
Yet in the case of the bogus rumor of Jobs' heart attack, the CNN-owned iReport.com served as an ideal distribution platform for the as yet unidentified rumormonger whose motives are unknown.
Instead of waiting to contact Apple in an attempt to verify that the rumor was indeed true, Blodget decided to post the rumor with a disclaimer that it had not been verified.
Some, such as Arnold Kim of MacRumors.com, believe it was actually Blodget's post that resulted in the sudden drop in Apple's share price.
In defending his decision, Blodget told News.com:
"We never know how long it will take to confirm or reject information like that, and we knew our readers would want to evaluate it themselves. So we described exactly what the report was, said we didn't know whether it was true or not, and said we were investigating."
Obviously, everyone involved is pointing fingers at someone else. So just who is to "blame"?
In my opinion, everyone.
As mainstream media outlets like CNN work to harvest the potentially valuable contributions of "citizen journalists" through services like iReport.com, they also provide credible-looking distribution platforms to pranksters and scammers.
Yet it's quite clear that CNN didn't think about the consequences of putting its brand behind an "unfiltered" service like iReport.com. Other media companies, such as CBS, are learning the hard way as well.
Popular bloggers like Blodget, in an effort to be "first" (as opposed to "right"), often promulgate worthless information (i.e. rumors). In this case, Blodget naively (or disingenuously) believed that posting a disclaimer that the Jobs rumor was unsubstantiated was a sufficient journalistic measure.
This despite the fact that other blogs, including MacRumors.com, had enough common sense to not post the rumor even though it was sent to them too.
And finally, the increasing number of individuals who seem ill-equipped to critically evaluate information and who are clearly so easily manipulated that they'll make decisions with their money based on blatantly questionable information certainly need to accept some responsibility.
In other words, there's plenty of blame to go around and no one individual or company is wholly responsible for last Friday's fiasco.
One thing is for sure, however - citizen journalism has received a black eye.
This incident will not cause CNN to shutter iReport.com and it won't stop bloggers like Blodget from posting rumors, but it has already forced some who are actively involved in the worlds of "citizen journalism" and blogging to recognize that there are real problems when raw information and speed are valued over accurate, filtered information.
At the end of the day, it's my hope that the fake report of Steve Jobs' heart attack will help promote more "common sense" amongst citizen journalists and bloggers because I certainly doubt it will promote more "common sense" amongst individuals.