Yesterday the stock market destruction of United Airlines looked like just another case of bumbling by the Bloomberg news wire. That still appears to be very much correct, but new details tell a larger and more sinister story — a conspiracy of robots to nuke United Airlines by duping one or two humans into acting as pawns. The robot cabal involves aggressive, autonomous bots at Google, Tribune Company and on Wall Street which, despite extensive safeguards, turned swiftly against the wishes of their creators. The whole thing was triggered by some seemingly innocent Google searches and only God knows who it will kill next!

On Monday, travelers Googling for information on airline delays amid bad East Coast weather may have flocked to an old Chicago Tribune article about United Airlines' 2002 bankruptcy, hosted on the website of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Noticing all the incoming traffic, robots running the Sun-Sentinel site added the article to a list of most popular stories.

The aggressive journo-cyclons at Google News were watching that list, and inferred that the United Airlines article must be brand new if it was posted there. It didn't help that the human "editors" of the Sun-Sentinel website hadn't bothered to put a date stamp on the article to indicate how old it was.

Some different robots at Google then spammed this story out to anyone with a "UAL" news alert.

An unwitting human at Income Securities Advisors Inc. then stumbled upon the old article but thought it was new, because the timestamp attached to it in a Google News search indicated as much. The human posted a link to the article on an Income Securities section of Bloomberg.

Noticing the link, a human at Bloomberg News then published an incorrect headline to Bloomberg's own wire, the newswire confirmed today. (Yesterday it wasn't clear if this was the case — the Times correctly implied it was, the Wall Street Journal incorrectly said Bloomberg had merely hosted the Income Security report.)

The robots then seized back control of events! Automatic stock-trading systems helped push down the price of UAL amid panicked selling triggered by the Bloomberg report. The stock plummeted to $3 from $12.50 before some good robots finally halted trading.

The bottom line: Bloomberg news chief Matthew Winkler should be ashamed not only of the recent screwups by his journalists, but also because he was so wrong in his famous tirade line, "the enemy... is not the computer... it's the human!"

The enemy very much appears to be The Computer, Matt!

[WSJ, Bloomberg]