It was a fantastic story – the RIAA suing Limewire for $72 trillion – more money than exists on earth. Too bad it was fake. A year-old post taken out of context somehow convinced the Internet that tiny Limewire (remember them?) was being sued for all of earth’s money. Sites like Lifehacker, Business Insider and The Onion’s AV Club all reported it as fact. Even CBS News briefly featured the story before deleting it.
I’m not trying to blame these news organizations, however. It’s not hard to see why this story spread quickly. It includes everything the Internet loves – absurdly large numbers, the music industry being out of touch with reality and a handy conclusion – copyright holders can’t be trusted. But again – it’s not true. No one was ever sued for $72 trillion. Ever.
You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, particularly if it’s something you want to believe as badly as this story. Come to think of it, especially if it’s something you want to believe as badly as this story. It’s been a while since all of this happened – the story “broke” in late May. But there’s a lesson here about how news spreads in the Internet age, and how it’s important to question things and find reliable sources before repeating something.
Where The Story Came From
In May 2012 Stuff.co.nz’s Pat Pilcher claimed the RIAA was suing Limewire for $72 trillion. Two days later an article about this showed up on NME’s website, written by an anonymous reporter. The story has since been taken down, so far as I can tell.
Both articles linked to a Computerworld article from March 2011. This article mentions Judge Kimba Wood dismissing an absurd claim about the damage Limewire did to the music industry. Wood’s conclusion was that their calculations for damages would entitle the RIAA to “more money than the entire music industry has made since Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877.” It was a critique of the way the RIAA came up with their damage claim.
Someone, at some point, read this year-old article, did some napkin math and somehow came up with the $72 trillion figure, which isn’t in the original article and doesn’t exist on any court documents anywhere. It was never the basis of a lawsuit, but as soon as NME published the story it spread like wildfire.
This makes sense. People want to believe it, especially people who hate the RIAA. People love and share stories that confirm their worldview. The truth is that no one ever sued anyone for $72 trillion. The RIAA ended up settling with Limewire for $105 million, an entire year before the $72 trillion rumor spread across the web.
Jaikumar Vijayan, the author of the ComputerWorld story that so many people took out of context, explains what happened here. It’s worth a read.
NME has since removed the story from their website, but it hardly matters. The story spread far beyond them. In the age of information, people can pick whatever they want to be true and stick with it.
I’ve mentioned the blog “Literally Unbelievable” in the past. It’s a site that collects people’s angry reactions to articles from The Onion, the web’s most famous fake news site. People believe these stories are true because they confirm something they already think. For example, some people think evangelicals are completely crazy, so they’ll believe a story like this:
The same thing happens for people of all worldviews; it seems to be a common human shortcoming. It’s really easy, in the age of social networking, to passively consume whatever “news” comes your way, particularly if it aligns with how you already see the world. But do that and you’ll end up living in a bubble of views you already agree with.
My good friend and fellow MakeUseOf writer James reported this news as fact on Technophila. I corrected him on air: I found out the story was fake by Googling “$72 Trillion”. By this time the truth had already floated to the top, as the truth tends to.
My point – if something seems too good to be true, and backs up your personal worldview to an absurd degree, research it – it’s probably stretching the truth. If the story isn’t written by someone who actually talked to the people involved, keep following links until you get to someone who did. Healthy food tends to be less processed; the same is true for information.