The trashed server hoax

You may have seen a recent report on several commercial news sites about Marco Marsala, who apparently inadvertently deleted his entire hosting business – 1535 customers, all told – by running a script. It now turns out that the whole story was not just a hoax, but was apparently part of a guerilla marketing campaign. Or maybe that is another hoax.

It all kicked off on Stack Exchange’s ServerFault, a question and answer site for system and network administrators. Marco Marsala claimed that, as the result of an error in a script which he had run on his company systems, the sites which it was hosting for all its customers, their local backups, and offsite backups, had all been deleted. He asked the age-old question from Unix newbies, as to how he could undelete or recover all the trashed data.

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This was reported by The Register, The Telegraph, the Independent, and no doubt many others in the internet’s undamped echo chamber.

Then Marco Marsala gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in which he revealed that the whole thing had just been “uno scherzo”, which even Google Translate recognises is ‘a joke’.

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There are many lessons to be learned from this.

First, we have come to accept that there are a lot of fools in this world, most of whom seem to use the internet, and post their stupidity as tweets, on Facebook, and in online help and discussion forums. Instead of checking what others say, we assume that they really have been that idiotic, and act accordingly.

When I first heard this story, I doubted its veracity because of the difficulty of accomplishing what it claimed. It has been sadly not uncommon for hosting services to suffer serious problems and then discover that their backups were non-existent or unusable, but even deliberately accomplishing this feat seemed incredible.

Second, although we are now all used to this sort of joke/lie/deception, the press seems to fall for it every time. New journalism calls for new methods, which don’t appear to include fact or veracity checking. If it appears on the screen, believe every last word and repeat it without exercising any critical faculties.

In the days of old journalism, when a member of the public phoned in with a potential story, a reporter would try to check the claims, and make sure that the story was sound and verifiable. That filter seems to have gone in the cost-cutting which has taken place in trying to survive in the brave new online world. Instead of commercial news sites being trustworthy, they are often purveyors of rumour and inaccuracy. At a time when they are trying to justify being commercial – charging for access, or imposing advertising on us – this does not help their cause.

Finally, is it really so easy to wipe everything? Is the command line, and shell scripting, so dangerous?

Using Terminal, the command line, is no more dangerous than doing anything else on your computer. It is remarkably easy to select your Documents folder, drag it to the Trash, then empty the Trash. I have never heard of anyone doing that, any more than I have heard first-hand of anyone using the command at the centre of this hoax (rm -rf /) to wipe their entire hard disk. It is also not difficult to restart in Recovery mode, enter Disk Utility, and erase your normal startup volume.

We don’t do these things because we know that they will bring disaster. Errors in Terminal may be a bit more unforgiving than those in the Finder, and those terse text commands may seem more prone to error, but there is no reason to be scared of either the Finder or Terminal. All you have to do is check what you do before it becomes irreversible.

It’s a bit like checking facts – something that we should get more used to doing.