The Long Tail of a Tall Tale

President Obama and new GOP rival Jon Huntsman – more than a quote apartOne of the advantages of digital communications is their enduring quality. Your information might get pushed down in Google ratings, but it doesn't disappear — even if the information is untrue.

Matt Bai, writing this week for the 6th Floor, the New York Times Magazine blog, describes how hard it is to erase something on the Internet.

The subject of his observation is a quote attributed to David Plouffe, President Obama's 2008 campaign manager, who allegedly said newly declared GOP president candidate Jon Huntsman makes him feel "a wee bit queasy." Bai included the quote in an article on Huntsman that will be published in the magazine on Sunday. In the blog, Bai admits the quote is not accurate.

Bai traces the "quote" back to 2009 in a U.S. News and World Report article "where Plouffe spoke admiringly of Governor Huntsman and singled him out as a strong presidential candidate" for 2012. This was before Obama appointed Huntsman, a former two-term governor of Utah and diplomat who speaks Mandarin, as U.S. ambassador to China. Reporter Nikki Schwab attributed the "a wee bit queasy" comment to Plouffe, but didn't put it in quotation marks.

From there, the "quote" has achieved a life of its own, despite efforts by Plouffe to correct the record.

"The 'queasy' quote has endured," Bai says, "largely because your average Google search turns up way more examples of the widespread misperception than it does any effort to correct the record."

"It's not that you can't find the complicated truth in a case like this," he adds. "It's more that you really have to go looking for it."

The lesson for Bai is that media outlets "need to do more to correct an error than simply attaching a line to the piece. In this case, I thought it was worth explaining how the falsity got started in the first place."

The lesson for everyone who communicates via the Internet is to exercise care in what you say and take responsibility when you make an error. That lesson extends to sending sexually explicit pictures of yourself or publishing untruths. What you post will have a life of its own. Your reputation depends on your integrity.