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Thursday, October 28, 2010

S.F. Bedbug Website Spawns Bogus Trend Stories Nationwide

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 4:30 PM

  • Louis De Vos, Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Now you see me...
Louis De Vos, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Now you see me...
The website, run by San Franciscan Maciej Ceglowski, takes pains to note that its anonymous reports of insect sitings should not be taken as hard evidence of a plague. But that hasn't stopped newspaper and television reporters around the country from citing posts to the site as evidence of local bedbug infestations.

The site's potency as a bogus news source, despite its own warnings that it shouldn't be, has become enough of a news business problem that Bill Krueger, a fellow with the journalism watchdog nonprofit the Poynter Institute, warned reporters about it in a recent entry.

The website's own warnings that it's not a reliable source "has not been enough to stop local reporters from using Ceglowski's

site as the basis for stories about bedbug infestations in their

communities. Their reports rarely have the sort of cautionary red flags

that Ceglowski waves on his website," Krueger wrote.

The website's warnings aren't subtle:

"How can you be sure these reports are true?" the site's FAQ section asks, rhetorically.

We can't - this is the Internet! All our bedbug reports are submitted through the site, and have not been vetted for accuracy. We do our best to flag posts that have been disputed, but we remind our readers to take things with a grain of salt.

Some reports are posted by malicious tenants. Some are posted by evil competitors. Some are posted by hypochondriacs

That hypochondriacs notion is important. According to a 2008 Washington Post story, only one out of every five bedbug complaints to the New York Housing authority actually turned up a real infestation. There's even a mental disease, called delusional parasitosis, in which people imagine bugs devouring them. Even people who aren't crazy are prone to imagine any sort of  quarter-inch long critter to be a feared, bloodsucking bedbug.

And then there's the Internet-born pest known as anonymous-comment faker. Gawker recently pointed out the mischief posters could create just by identifying their foes as bedbug carriers.

One could perhaps imagine a Beauty & the Beast "Kill the beast!" scene, angry townspeople waving custom-made pitchforks with cans of aerosol bug-repellent in place of tines. (I didn't say it was likely.) One could also imagine internet hooligans impersonating people they know to make their houses sound gross.
That hasn't stopped reporters -- you know, we guys and gals who are greater sticklers for accuracy than random websites -- from using the site to declare local bedbug infestations.

According to the New Orleans Times Picayune story "Bedbug problem creeping toward New Orleans":

A search of the Bed Bug Registry, which tracks reported infestations in the U.S. and Canada, turned up bedbug complaints against 16 hotels in New Orleans, nine of which received complaints this summer. Despite multiple bedbug reports in the case of several hotels, the suspected infestations couldn't be definitively confirmed.

The Fox News station in Detroit, meanwhile, ran a piece titled "Registry Shows Hotels With Bedbugs"

The CBS station in Las Vegas, meanwhile, ran with "Bed Bug Registry Lists Numerous Las Vegas Hotels."

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