This week, an e-mail landed in my inbox with the header “Unsold Cars.”
Above is just a few of the thousands upon thousands of unsold cars at Sheerness, United Kingdom. Please do see this on Google Maps....type in Sheerness, United Kingdom. Look to the west coast, below River Thames next to River Medway. Left of A249, Brielle Way.
Normally, I would have deleted the e-mail without a second thought. But several things about it warranted further notice.
The first were aerial photos of thousands of cars. Wow, this really was a lot of cars.
The second was the phrase “Timestamp: Friday, May 16th, 2014,” which suggests that these photos were brand new.
The origin of the photos was a Jan. 16, 2009, article in the Guardian by Nick Mead. Note that this was smack in the middle of the financial crisis, when anything purchased on credit simply froze. At the time, other sites also picked up the photos from the Guardian, such as car blogs like Jalopnik, and market sites like Mish’s Global Economic Analysis.
The truth about these five-year-old photos didn't stop the usual doom and gloomers from immediately running with them. Zero Hedge, Silver Bear, Daily Paul, and too many others to list here re-posted these old snaps as if they were new.
Which raises the following question: How trustworthy are your favorite Internet sources? It varies a lot.
Look for factual data, and you can hunt down a lot of truth with a little bit of effort, beyond the simple tidbit that these photos are more than five years old.
For example, we can find how many cars are being sold in the U.S. now, along with plenty of historical data. In 2009, when these photos were taken, U.S. auto sales were running at barely a 9 million annual rate. Fast-forward to today and, as we learned at the beginning of this month, we are running at an annual rate of more than 16 million autos. That is an improvement of 78 percent.
We know this because the data is on the Bloomberg terminal as well as on the Bloomberg website. Or you can go to a reliable site like Calculated Risk, which has been cranking out a steady stream of great economic charts and data for more than seven years.
Even the text in the faux ``Unsold Cars'' article is misleading: According to The Truth About Cars, “Sheerness is one of the leading ports for the importation of cars to the United Kingdom.” The updated photos showing all those cars in the U.K. aren't unsold inventory waiting to be shipped; they are the precise opposite -- these are cars in the pipeline that dealers have ordered, not a vast graveyard of autos waiting to rust.
All of which points to how significant it is to identifying good and not so good sources of facts, opinions and commentary. I have come to trust, after years of scrutiny, my own favorites. These are authors who have proven themselves to be reliable, disciplined and trustworthy. Their methodologies are rational, and their work product is solid.
Modern technology has a great ability to disseminate information. But as is claimed on the Internet, Mark Twain once observed, (it was actually British clergy man Charles Spurgeon) “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That was never truer than it is now in the Internet age.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this over the weekend, two other sites have identified the photos and story as false: Debunker site Snopes.com and, in far less family friendly but much more amusing language, the auto blog Jalopnik.
To contact the author of this article: Barry Ritholtz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at email@example.com.