A cautionary tale from The Guardian which based a blog post detailing rape and death threats made by online computer gamers on a pseudonymous comment which turned out to have been left by a made-up person.
The Guardian reported the comments in a blog post crediting them only to “TheIneffableSwede”.
Thanks to the efforts of a journalist in Sweden we now know that TheIneffableSwede isn’t just a pseudonym, but it was a name used by an entirely fake online character called Veronika Larsson whose various profile pictures were stolen from a real person called Tiffany Nichole Olson.
It turns out that TheIneffableSwede has written more than 3,600 comments on The Guardian website.
Metro Sweden’s social media editor Jack Werner got to the bottom of the story via some impressive online detective work and writes: “TheIneffableSwede’s real name was Veronika Larsson and she was the most interesting commentator I’ve ever stumbled across. She was born in Malmö, had studied Economics at UC Berkeley in California and now studied at the London School of Economics. She had lived in eleven countries, spoke five languages, was my age but far more well educated than I, was a feminist, member of the Green Party and a piercing critic of practically everything under the sun.”
Although as Veronika Larsson has turned out to be a figment of the author's imagination, the above biog should be perhaps treated with a pinch of salt. Werner tracked down the real person whose image had been stolen for use on the Veronika Larsson profile pictures with clever use of Google picture search.
But so far he has failed to track down whoever is behind the hoax Larsson profile.
Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur told the paper's reader’s editor Chris Elliott: "It's a serious matter. In retrospect, we would have done better to try to establish more of the detail … We don't know whether what they described *didn't* happen."
The story was taken down after questions were asked by Werner, who was tasked with following up the original Guardian piece (most of which can still be read here).
In May 2011 The Guardian reported that the Gay Girl in Damascus blog was “capturing the imagination of the Syrian opposition”. It later turned out that the blog in question was authored by a 58-year-old retired construction worker from Ohio called Bill Graber.
Earlier this year a Guardian blog reported unverified online claims that a craze for eyeball licking was sweeping Japan only to retract the story after it was exposed as a hoax.
Werner told Press Gazette: "The Guardian could have made more of an effort to double-check the commenter TheIneffableSwede, but honestly they're not the only ones making these kind of mistakes.
"This shows that we as a species are still more or less new to the internet, and still haven't grasped the possibilities and consequences of it. If we wan't to use witness reports from the web, we need to find out a way to treat identities online, to figure out what identities will be in the future when they're no longer necessarily connected to our physical selves."