Welcome back to Can’t Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
For a writer on the fake news beat like me, there’s already at least one cliche that I find myself wanting to repeat: “The real news is weirder than the fake news lately.” Half the time, it feels like actual headlines are crazier than the endless parade of lies that fills my social media feeds. I think that’s because the lies follow patterns, and reality seems like it no longer does. This week’s weirdness had me rushing to debunk it as soon as the news broke, only to find out it was true.
This was the week in which—without direct coercion or provocation—Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out the planning details of a 2016 meeting that included someone he was told was a “Russian government attorney” who was supposedly eager to pass along dirt on Hillary Clinton. (This was after the New York Times informed Junior the paper was planning to publish those details.) Also this week, Kid Rock announced that he’s running for US Senate, insisted he is not kidding, and noted he would also not mind if you bought his new single.
Meanwhile, the hoaxes that circulated online this week are less random, and a little more like the proverbial turtle on a fencepost: They didn’t get there on their own. Normally, people lie for a reason, and that was very much the case this week.
Mr. Bean is dead
Rowan Atkinson—or, to Americans like me, the dude who plays Mr. Bean (sorry)—is alive. One day, sadly, he will die, but since he’s the target of frequent death hoaxes, a whole lot of people won’t believe the news when they read it. Imagine how weird it must feel to be in that category of celebrities whose obituaries repeatedly make for believable, spreadable hoaxes.
This week’s Atkinson hoax was a particularly virulent strain of scammy internet garbage. Rather than exposing victims to a bunch of crappy ads, the viral Facebook post baited users into a veritable Choose Your Own Adventure story of malware and scams. According to the Australian debunking site Hoax Slayer, once drawn into the scam portal some users were roped into giving their contact info to spammers, while others were tricked into installing malware, or even what sounds like some kind of ransomware.
Jaden Smith wants to hack your Facebook
Don’t tell me you actually shared the viral Facebook post warning you about a scary hacker named “Jayden K. Smith” that showed up starting last month, and hit critical mass this week, according to Snopes. No, no one “has the system connected to your Facebook account,” whatever that means.
But the post spread endlessly thanks to very specific set of sharing instructions for mobile app users, who were told, “Hold your finger down on the message. At the bottom in the middle it will say forward. Hit that then click on the names of those in your list and it will send to them.” The hoax is still going strong as of this writing, and was widespread enough to generate at least one parody Facebook account.
Canadian strippers had diarrhea onstage
Some entity operating in the world of fake news has a very elaborate technique that I’ve seen a few times now. They create what look like entire news websites and give them real sounding names like “Cairns Times,” or in this week’s example, “Alberta Times.” The site has a front page, including clickable stories based on regional local news (although most of them are just a few words). And of course the whole thing is loaded with ads that look like articles—boner enhancement, horny babez in your area, baldness cures, and so on.
But each time, the site seems to be built entirely around one hoax article. In this case: an absolute blockbuster about a strip club being plunged into diarrhea hell. After tucking into the club’s all-you-can-eat buffet, a stripper was supposedly performing when “a stream of brown liquid soon gushed over the stage,” after which “a number of guests immediately puked.”
This story came to my attention after it made the jump to ostensible outlets for actual news, like a country music radio station in Canada. But Snopes debunked it all the way back in May. Weirdly, the version Snopes initially spotted was at a site called “Border Herald,” and supposedly took place in Jacksonville, Florida.
J ames Comey leak classified information
Our last item concerns the rumor that fired FBI Director James Comey is potentially on the hook for a crime—once again, a story spread by the president himself.
A report in the Hill on Sunday touched on the classified nature of some of the material in internal memos written by Comey as notes to himself. Comey had deliberately leaked a couple memos to the New York Times after he left the agency. “This revelation raises the possibility that Comey broke his own agency’s rules,” said the Hill story. At least one Republican congressman is pushing for an investigation into whether or not this was some kind of consequential wrongdoing, but reports so far say Comey’s leaked memos didn’t have “classified” stamped on them. Moreover, the perceived wisdom about Comey is that he ran a pretty tight ship at the FBI, so it’s tough to picture him leaking classified information on his way out the door.
But when the story made it to Fox & Friends—one of President Trump’s favorite shows on TV, it was worded a little more simplistically: “A brand-new bombshell report accuses Comey of putting our national security at risk. According to the Hill, the former FBI director’s personal memos, detailing private conversations with President Trump, contained top secret information.”
That led to Trump announcing to the world that what Comey did was “so illegal.”
Later that day, the fake news snake ate its own tail when Fox News tweeted that Trump had “accused former FBI Director James Comey of having illegally leaked classified information.” But afterwards, on the next day’s episode of Fox & Friends, host Steve Doocy apologized for the error, and Fox News tweeted a correction.
In a sense, that puts Fox News in the same category as CNN: They both sometimes get facts wrong, and then correct the record. And to be clear, that is what news organizations are supposed to do. It’s just a shame the president doesn’t have the same standard.
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