Web surfers looking for raw news often stumble upon the CNN iReport page, which allows anyone with an email address to "write" a news story carrying the famous CNN imprint on the masthead.
Anyone familiar with the site knows to take most of what's posted there with a grain of salt, but, occasionally some real news gets surfaced, and an actual CNN journalist is dispatched to cover the story in a more professional manner. You know, by checking facts and stuff.
Not this time.
On Memorial Day a story with the title "Giant asteroid possibly on collision course with Earth" appeared and immediately started drawing lots of massive traffic.
Spooling out a very dubious tale, the iReporter, Marcus575, states matter of factly that NASA scientists have recently discovered an asteroid the "size of Manhattan" which had been nudged out of its orbit when passing Mars, putting the giant space rock "on a high speed collision course with our fragile planet."
The story goes on to say that collision could happen within 30 years and gives a specific date. And, that's when things really begin to fall apart.
Pegging that date as "March 35, 2041" should have been the first tip off that either the poster was kidding or, at the very least, is a poor typist.
But, more than 250,000 hits later (and counting) it seems some readers will believe anything, as long as a respected logo sits at the top of the page.
CNN makes it clear what the role of the iReporter is and what stories appear on the page in the "About" section in the footer. But that hasn't stopped thousands of Doomsday believers from piling on and actually defending the veracity of the clearly bogus report.
Still, the article may generate some type of response from NASA, assuring the public that no such killer asteroid exists and that Marcus575 made the whole thing up. And they'll prove it.
In about 27 years...
Update: The story has been pulled by CNN iReport with the following note:
"NASA has confirmed via email that this story is false. A spokewoman for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that the largest object detected by NEOWISE measures 3 km in diameter and poses no risk to Earth. The iReport has been removed."