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Damned Lies and Statistics: How Facebook, Google, and Microsoft Got Punked

Carol Kopp

Adam Sandler was not killed yesterday in a snowboarding accident in Zermatt, Switzerland, as reported in a post on Twitter.  Nor was Eddie Murphy, in an eerily similar incident that previously didn't happen. Vin Diesel and Kobe Bryant also are alive and well, despite Internet rumors to the contrary. And the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., founded by Wal-Mart (WMT) heiress Alice Walton, was not closed last Friday in a show of solidarity with Wal-Mart employees demonstrating over the holiday weekend.

As Mark Twain may or may not have written: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

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"May or may not" because the source is Wikipedia, and you know what that's worth. However, the statement is demonstrably true, and here are three illustrations from the past couple of days alone, including one lie, one damned lie, and one statistic.

A Lie About Facebook

Over the weekend, many users of Facebook (FB) fell for a false report that the company was about to change its policies to claim the rights to any content posted by its users. This lie came complete with a recommendation that users protect their content by cutting and pasting a boilerplate pseudo-legal "copyright notice" for all their friends to see.

The company was forced to confirm that it has made no such change to its guidelines, which state that the user, by posting on Facebook, grants Facebook a license to share the post with your friends. That boilerplate legal language is pretty dubious, too, but that's the Internet world for you.

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The report is believed to have originated in an anonymous person's freak-out over a genuine policy change proposed by Facebook. The change would eliminate automated polling from its feedback process, on the grounds that it was a dumb idea and it doesn't work anyway.

A Damned Lie About Google

Google (GOOG) did not announce that it would buy ICOA, a Wi-Fi hotspot provider, as claimed in a fake press release that was widely reported across the Web on Monday. Some well-established technology news sites, including TechCrunch, SlashGear, and GigaOm, fell for this one before executives at ICOA started frantically sending out email denials. This qualifies as a "damned lie" because it smells an awful lot like a classic "pump-and-dump" stock scheme. ICOA, which has six employees and 2011 revenues of $85,000, is a penny stock that trades on the OTC Pink Sheets. It started and ended the day at a share price of .0001, with a midday spike before the story imploded.

A Statistic About Microsoft

On Monday, Fortune.com ran a column based on a Piper Jaffray team's observation of eight hours of Black Friday traffic at the Apple (AAPL) store at the Mall of America, and two hours at the Microsoft (MSFT) store across the hall. The team found that the Microsoft store got 47% less traffic than the Apple store, presumably during the two hours that both were monitored.

It also found that shoppers bought 17.2 items per hour at the Apple store, but only 3.5 items per hour at Microsoft, and all but two of those were X-Box games. Finally, it found that shoppers bought an average of 11 iPads per hour, while not a single Microsoft Surface tablet was sold during those two hours.

They even have a little mini-spreadsheet to lay all that out.

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This story was a mildly interesting anecdote until it got picked up and splashed all over the Internet with headlines like these: "Microsoft's Surface tablet has a black, meaning dismal, Black Friday" (in The San Francisco Examiner), and "Black Friday Shoppers Flocked to iPad, Ignored Surface Tablet" (in Mashable.com). Or this one in ComputerWorld: "Analyst reports that Black Friday Microsoft Surface sales were dismal."

Can't blame Piper Jaffrey for this, but Microsoft ended the trading day on Monday, a positive day for Nasdaq stocks generally, at $27.39, a loss of 1.14%.

Mark Twain is spinning in his grave. If he ever really wrote that.