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The Teen Wolf of Wall Street: another ‘too good to check’ media debacle

A remarkable story by Jessica Pressler at New York magazine spread through mediaspace with lightning speed on Monday, reappearing in major media outlets with a speed normally only achieved by Star Wars Episode VII teasers flashing across teenage Facebook pages: a high-school student named Mohammed Islam made $72 million trading stocks with his cell phone during his lunch breaks.  

A lengthy character study of Mo and his friends followed, including some sage wisdom from the Teen Wolf of Wall Street (“What makes the world go round? Money. If money is not flowing, if businesses don’t keep going, there’s no innovation, no products, no investments, no growth, no jobs.”) plus some very narrative-friendly Gordon Gecko comments from his friends (“You can rob a bank with a gun, but you rob the whole world with a bank!”) and even a little something to jump-start the bile ducts of left-wing readers (“We want to create a brotherhood. Like, all of us who are connected, who are in something together, who have influence, like the Koch brothers…”)

It was all just a little too perfect, and thanks to the wonders of instantaneous online feedback, skeptical readers began poking holes in the story right away.  Among other details, Mo never actually confirmed his earnings to the reporter – she claimed to have seen a bank statement showing eight figures in an account, but that’s not at all proof that the money was earned by the teenager, let alone that he did it with day trading over cafeteria lunches – and if he really raked in $72 million during such a short period of time, he wouldn’t just be a child prodigy of the stock market, he’d be the most successful trader in history.  

This triggered a series of walkbacks, with Pressler first arguing that she didn’t have any control over the assertions made in the headline of her piece, then waving off informed skeptics by saying “we’re not a financial publication.”  When other reporters started digging into the story, they found young Mr. Islam very difficult to get in touch with, while his friends began speaking of the claims made in the New York article as rumors that got out of control.  Requests to see profit & loss statements to prove the astonishing $72 million in earnings were refused.  As chronicled by Twitchy, which followed the disintegration of the story throughout the day, the saga ended with the investment club Mo belongs to “performing due diligence and talking with Mohammed Islam himself” to determine that the $72 million claim is categorically false, “blown up by the media in the interests of sensationalism.”

Pressler’s point about not controlling the headline to her piece is fair enough – writers often don’t write their own headlines or control the marketing of their work.  She certainly didn’t control the way other media outlets took the story and ran with it, producing even more distorted headlines along the way.  (The New York Post version, reproduced at the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, flatly asserts: “High School Student Scores $72 Million Playing Stock Market.”)  The body of the original story explicitly states that the $72 million figure was a rumor, although it’s written in a way that leads readers to believe the rumor had some basis in fact, transitioning immediately into the details of Mo’s growing fame without any effort made at debunking the astounding number.  To wit:

Rumors, on Wall Street, can be powerful. A whisper can turn into a current that moves markets, driving a stock price up or sending it tumbling. There may be only one other place where gossip holds such sway, and that is high school.

Late last year, a rumor began circulating at Stuyvesant that a junior named Mohammed Islam had made a fortune in the stock market. Not a small fortune, either. Seventy-two million.

An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit. Everyone at Stuy knew that Mohammed, the soft-spoken son of Bengali immigrants from Queens and the president of the school’s Investment Club, was basically a genius.

(Emphasis mine.)  You have to do quite a bit of reading between those lines to distill the concession, “We don’t know if this is actually true, and you shouldn’t expect us to challenge the claim, because we’re not a financial paper.”  There’s egg on the faces of other outlets that spread this story rapidly without performing any diligence of their own, but in all fairness, you can’t entirely blame someone for reading the New York article and coming away with the strong impression that Mo did indeed harvest that fabled $72 million from the stock market.  He may also be every bit the financial genius he’s been hailed as – he could have made a fraction of those millions and still be judged an impressive trader, if he really did it all on his own, during school lunch hour or otherwise.  Still, it looks like we have another example of Too Good to Check, illuminating the process by which half-truths and outright fabrications become received wisdom, echoing through a gossipy media that is far less skeptical than it should be.

So, assuming Mohammed Islam really did make a pile of money trading on Wall Street, if not quite as much as media legend initially held… are we supposed to admire him for his ambition and ability, or curse him as one of those stock-market vampires getting rich off the Working Man’s blood?  The media really hasn’t finished writing this narrative yet, but if Mo and his pals make a few more admiring comments about the Koch Brothers, I think it will all come into focus.

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