Digital Deception: Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?

(photo by wintersixfour)

(photo by wintersixfour)

It was Oct. 30, 1938 and Americans were glued to their radios awaiting further news about a reported invasion by Martians. They heard about how a meteorite had landed in Grovers Mill, N.J. An onsite reporter described how a crowd had gathered around a Martian who was sighted inside the vehicle and who incinerated all present, including the reporter. They awaited further bulletins on casualties and heard about how an army of Martians were preparing to invade New York City.

Orson Welles adaptation of the H.G. Well’s novel “War of the Worlds” is the pinnacle of fake news. At the time it was treated as an outrage by some journalists who claimed it created havoc. But we now think of it as brilliant drama.

Seventy-five or so years later, the tools to publish are available to everyone, as is the ability to promote what you publish through social media. The Web is full of fake news sites, the most popular of which is probably The Onion. While it calls itself “America’s finest news source,” its substantial following knows full well what the deal is.

But fake news also has a dark side. A recent story by the relatively unknown National Report carried the headline “17 Texas Kindergarteners Contract Ebola After Exposure to Liberian Foreign Exchange Student.” This prompted a story in Fast Company “Friends Don’t Let Friends Share Fake News About Ebola” which began: “This is a public service announcement about Ebola. If you see a story from a source called the National Report, ignore it.” The site commented: “These sites claim to be satirical but lack even incompetent attempts at anything resembling humor.”

What motivates a nothing publication like the National Report to publish this kind of crap? The two million clicks it got in one day on this story, most of which were generated from Facebook. (Remember those statements from Facebook about elevating quality content in their news feed?) Fake news operations are using the same kind of clickbait tactics popularized by services like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, but without going to the expense of employing a real editorial staff.

Big American News is another fake newsjacker trying to produce clicks by feeding the potential panic over the spread of Ebola. These guys published a picture that they claimed showed an Ebola victim rising from the dead. Turns out the photo was a screenshot of a zombie from a movie. Imagine how the trend meter would percolate when you combine Ebola and zombie apocalypse.

Some other stuff that has gone viral recently includes another National Report story with the headline “The Big Lebowski 2 Filming Begins in January 2015.” It doesn’t really. And a site called chipped in with “NASA Confirms That the Earth Will Experience 6 Days of Total Darkness in December 2014.”

But it is not just clickbaiters that use fake news to accomplish their goals. It has also reportedly been a tactic of both the FBI and the Republican Party.

(photo by nightfall)

(photo by nightfall)

Just last month, the FBI used fake news to nab a bomb threat suspect. (FBI Under Fire for Fake News Site to Nab Suspect.) They created a news story with an AP slug and posted it on a site that looked like the Seattle Times. They then sent it to the suspect on his My Space account. Since the story was about the suspect, he clicked on it, as they expected, and the file included malware that allowed the FBI to track his location. The Seattle Times called this an “affront to a free press.” But one also needs to consider that if catching this guy saved even one life does that result justify the tactics used?

In the ugly world of Washington politics, the National Republican Congressional Committee was reported earlier this year to have used fake news sites to attack Democratic congressional candidates (NRCC Launches Fake News Sites to Attack Democratic Candidates.) They created one page sites with names like “North County Update” to give the impression of a local news site. There were disclaimers at the bottom of the page acknowledging that the site was paid for by NRCC. The story in the National Journal also states that the NRCC had been the subject of a Federal Elections Commission complaint earlier for creating fake Democratic candidate sites.

Let us not forget, however, that there is some good satire out there, fake news that is both funny and insightful. Here are some examples:

After the governors of New York and New Jersey announced Ebola quarantine rules that went beyond what was being recommended by the CDC and the President, The Borowitz Report in reported “Christie Sworn In as Doctor.”

The staff at NewsMutiny apparently took note of the military arsenal available to the police dealing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., and took it one step further with this story “Local Police Department Acquires Nuclear Weapon to Fight Crime.”

And as football season draws to a close and sports reporters start to look at post season awards, the Onion felt this group worthy of recognition: “Penn State Honors Legendary 2012 Legal Team During Halftime.”

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26 Responses to Digital Deception: Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?

  1. When I saw that fake news in the title of your post, my first thought was of those celebrity death hoaxes reported by papers unknown to anyone. I also see suspicious news accounts on Twitter. As far as the FBI suspect, it was worth the effort if he was guilty. I’ve heard of similar tactics being used to bust child pornography rings.


  2. patweber says:

    Certainly the venue of online social media and technology make it easier to generate more fake news, your “digital deception.” Some people really just don’t THINK, and other do think that this is just fair game, fun. Like a high school prankster on steroids. I suppose if the War of the Worlds 1938 radio scare was fair game, certainly not illegal, then stories as you mention are just as fair.

    Interesting, when I’ve seen these things show up as an ad on a site I am visiting, I just don’t BELIEVE them and pay little attention to the blinking or scrolling report of them.


  3. jacquiegum says:

    Freedom has a downside, right? I completely agree that although the outcome for the FBI was a positive one, there is no entity like the government who is more prone to crossing the line. But War of the Worlds sort of set the standard for the acceptability of fake news, and social media has only exacerbated the problem. Hell, even respected news outlets could be accused of publishing fake news, right? But there is really no accounting for humor…what some feel is satire, others will disdain.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna Janke says:

    The good satirical news sites can be entertaining and amusing. Good satire can foster critical thinking. As to the other sites, like other information on the Internet, one needs to confirm validity of the site before taking the information seriously.


  5. Not surprised because Americans are more gullible than people in the rest of the world. And I would not put the GOP past anything.:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. William Rusho says:

    Also reminds me about ACORN and how FOX News had portrayed it. Also how they do an article that “It was reported on…”, when in fact it was a sub station of FOX that reported it. In this way they can say that they were not investigating the story, they were simply saying someone else had reported it.
    I think some of this goes back to the begining of infomercials, where commercials are broadcasted as a news show.


  7. andleeb says:

    Hello Ken

    We come across so many fake news everyday and some times it is hard to differentiate between truth and a lie. If a lie is to get something good out of it , it is worth telling like catching criminals by FBI or any other organization. Otherwise , it is not a good Idea. Sometimes we come across many such news that can do a lot of damage for many as fake news about Ebola and stuff.

    I feel it is responsibility of government to regulate everything going on net. But I feel with so much freedom with internet and social media it is bit hard. ALl we can do is you behave responsibly at our own place.

    Very nice post.


  8. It’s amazing what people will believe just because someone says it. I’m surprised at the number of inaccurate statements made on the internet. Not only does it reveal how easily people can be persuaded, but that people lack logic and critical thinking abilities. What’s sad when the fabrications damage someone’s character; it’s destroyed families and careers. Sadly, once the news is out in cyberspace, it’s hard, if not impossible to erase.


  9. It’s amazing what people will believe just because someone says it. I’m surprised at the number of inaccurate statements made on the internet. Not only does it reveal how easily people can be persuaded, but that people lack logic and critical thinking abilities. What’s sad when the fabrications damage someone’s character; it’s destroyed families and careers. Sadly, once the news is out in cyberspace, it’s hard, if not impossible to erase.


  10. Tim says:

    From a historical perspective War of the Worlds is an incredible illustration of how powerful the media is. Freedom is a right in this country and so, as with anything good, there will be a flipside. In this case that will be pranks and fake news. It is a price and it is sometimes in poor taste but that is the price. I for one am glad to pay it.


  11. Some people will do anything for attention. Also, how many times a year is there a celebrity death hoax doing the rounds on twitter. Some people have a weird sense of humor i guess!


  12. Hi Ken – back in the late 60’s, there was a news report on the radio that the US had taken over Canada. While I have nothing against the States and in fact, am quite happy knowing we are neighbours, I do want to be a Canadian, not American and this report really upset me at the time. I soon found out it was a hoax, similar to War of the Worlds, but it wasn’t funny to me. The ebola story with kindergartners would have upset many parents the same way. What can we do? Nothing, unless we want to monitor everything everyone says and if we give that job to the government you know where that will lead. I guess we just have to educate people – just because it’s in print or on the news, doesn’t mean it’s fact, find out for yourself. Thanks for a truly interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I see fake news everyday on tv…


  14. Andy says:

    I was unaware of the NewsMutiny site prior to this post – thanks for giving it a shout-out.

    As of this writing, the “Breaking News” at the NewsMutiny home page is: “Congressman Wins Election by Just $6”


  15. One of my former students shared that fake Ebola article in all seriousness. Satire is a sophisticated concept that takes a lot of practice to really be able to identify and understand, and it’s just another area public school doesn’t effectively address. I used to love doing my introductory slides for Animal Farm. Without exception, a handful of students were shocked to learn that Stephen Colbert’s show is indeed farcical. Gasp! He’s not a conservative type, etc, etc. etc.


  16. valerieremymilora says:

    What amazes me is how many people take fake news at face value. Too many people are “trigger happy” when it comes to sharing on social media and don’t take the time to double check the source of the information they are sharing. As for the FBI using fake news for tracking down a suspect… I don’t have a problem with it as long as no one innocent is hurt in the process.


  17. Great post, Ken! Reminds me a couple weeks back when Renee Zellweger’s photos appeared on a website and they had to post a comment to clarify that *all* the pictures were indeed, all Renee Zellwegger – she’d changed her looks so much that readers were confused. There’s a website called developed by Craig Silverman, that tracks online rumours – really, the media has to be monitored, because as you say, it’s not generally a laughing matter. Same with Jesse Brown and Canadaland. It’s all quite fascinating, isn’t it?!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Meredith says:

    I’m really on the fence about this one. Yes, there is definitely a dark side to fake news, and certain things should be off limits, but who’s to say what those limits are? And sometimes these stories are just so darn funny. I especially like the ebola/zombie apocalypse idea.


  19. I do not think its right to purport to be a reliable and true news source when you are not. Its ok if its well known and mentioned that its fake to avoid wrong actions and panic by readers. And its worse to raise such news stories relating to health concerns that have killed and still kill thousands. It makes us seem insensitive and cold I think.


  20. I’m not an expert by any means but I’ve come across many more fake reports being passed around on Facebook than anywhere else. For better or worse normally I turn a blind eye, but one morning someone I knew accompanied a story with a lengthy rant. I knew the story wasn’t true so I went in search of proof and sent her a link in a private message because I felt bad for her and she deleted the piece and her rant. Sadly people are all too eager to buy into anything that sounds remotely sensational without taking the time to find out if it’s true or not.


  21. jbutler1914 says:

    People will do anything for web traffic these days. I can’t stand bad satire. It’s usually not funny at all.


  22. Arleen says:

    The problem is fake news creates sensationalism and real news is boring


  23. crystalzakrison says:

    That Would make sense that there are fake news stories. One has to read between the lines. Who knows what’s real and not real. It’s hard to decipher these days. I do want the internet to stay free though. I do not liked people posting fake stories about Ebola. That just scares the public. Great topic!


  24. Pingback: 10 Most Viewed Off the Leash Blog Posts in 2014 | off the leash

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