Britney Spears Hacked into CNN.com

A morbid cultural experiment conducted by a tech-savvy prankster yielded the most hits for the eye-popping fake headline, “Singer Britney Spears Killed in Car Accident,” on CNN.com over the weekend.

News of the hoax, which received more than 150,000 hits over a 12-hour period on the AOL Time Warner-owned news site Sunday afternoon, was first reported by Newsbytes.com.

The trickery was perpetrated by one Tim Fries, a Saginaw, Mich.-based online comic strip artist, who said he was conducting research as to how far and fast misleading information travels on the Web. He basically tested the public’s trust in the Internet for finding breaking news, a particularly poignant matter in light of what is going on with respect to America’s war on terrorism.

“With the recent terrorist attacks and such an increasing reliance on the Internet as a trusted news source, misinformation could prove to be a powerful weapon,” Fries, who has removed the parody page from the Internet, told Newsbytes.com.

So, how did he do it? Fries used a mock-up of a CNN.com Web page at an external site and exploited a peculiarity in how Web browsers handle URLs. Fries launched the Spears death hoax by distributing a specially crafted URL to three users of AOL’s Instant Messenger chat software.

The URL began with the characters http://www.cnn.com , followed by “@” and the IP address of his Web site. Because browsers ignore the characters to the left of the “@” in the Web address, users were taken directly to the phony article when they clicked on it.

When readers clicked on the “E-mail This” link on the phony Web story to send it to others, CNN.com’s systems were triggered, distributing a message with CNN.com’s logo and a link to the bogus news piece. The news site’s systems added each “Email This” click to its “Most Popular” stories total.

CNN.com unwittingly helped perpetuate the hoax by directing users to the external bogus report; this made “Singer Britney Spears Killed in Car Accident” the “Most Popular” story credited to CNN.com, without it ever actually residing on the news site’s pages.

A CNN.com spokesperson told Newsbytes.com the bug has been fixed.

With a few exceptions, the site was a carbon copy of CNN.com’s Web design and writing style, but those who didn’t read the fine line of the copyright notice would have smelled something funny. At the bottom of the faux report was a line which read “Copyright 2001 The Disassociated Press,” which was linked to a page explaining the parody.

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