On the face of it, it seemed no weirder than other statements we’ve heard from hardline US Republicans. “Chris Christie: Women’s Viagra Pill Will Only Increase Lesbianism,” ran the headline, and the story quickly began spreading across social media. Christie, now a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, was claimed to have become agitated when asked about flibanserin, the experimental drug intended to boost the female sex drive.
“The men of today already have enough trouble satisfying women as it is,” ran the quote. “Who are they going to turn to to quench that thirst? Other women. Men aren’t machines, but neither are they. They just haven’t realised it yet.” More than 240,000 people registered their interest in the story on Facebook. But it wasn’t true. It may never have occurred to them that it might be satire, but it was. Weak satire, but satire nonetheless.
The website that still carries this story, newslo.com, proclaims itself as “the first hybrid news/satire platform on the web”. Each page contains a button that highlights which parts of the story are true, and which aren’t. But the eyes tend to bypass the buttons and drift to the text, where the jokes aren’t that funny and the satirical targets are not always that obvious. The Christie story ended up being uncritically passed on by so many people that snopes.com, the web’s primary debunking resource, saw fit to publish a piece emphasising that he had said no such thing. That debunk has been viewed more than 30,000 times. But the original article has been seen many, many more times.
Snopes.com’s workload has been increasing as websites such as newslo.com intentionally blur the lines between news, satire, entertainment and downright falsehood. “Dave Chappelle, Dead At 41,” proclaims NewsBuzzDaily, reporting the demise of an American comedian who is still very much alive. “Little Red Book – Original Copy Sold For $500M,” runs a headline on notallowedto.com, for reasons that remain unclear. “Spain Found Guilty Of Bribing Referees During 2010 World Cup”, “Doctors Confirm First Human Death Caused By Genetically Modified Food”, “Instant Noodles Cause Cancer”, “Air Force, Marines Cancel F-35 Joint Strike Fighter”, “Drake Arrested After Caught Having Sex With 16 Year Old” – these stories are all completely false, but gained traction as we pounced upon the claims and shared them. Snopes.com has now published a list of “Fake News Sites To Avoid Sharing”, which includes National Report (“America’s #1 Independent News Source”), World News Daily Report (“News You Can Trust!”), Huzlers (“Breaking News & Urban Entertainment”) and Empire News. All these sites play fast and loose with the word “news” while delivering material that’s completely fabricated.
They also carry barely noticeable disclaimer pages explaining that the stories are intended for “entertainment purposes” – but it’s not immediately apparent who’s being entertained. There are few of the belly laughs that you might get from satirical news sites such as The Onion or The Daily Mash; indeed, if confusion is the goal, there’s little incentive to be funny. Maybe it’s just for the entertainment of the people penning the stories. “I think there’s something quite devious and unpleasant about them,” says Neil Rafferty, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Mash. “It seems like a deliberate attempt to hoax people, in a really mean way. It’s certainly not about bringing joy to people’s lives.”
Debunked myths and fake news stories
Debunked myths and fake news stories
1/23 Nasa releases statement over rumours that asteroid will destroy Earth
Nasa has just debunked a recent rumour of a giant asteroid due to crash into the Earth in September. Internet conspiracy theorists have been saying that an asteroid will hit our planet sometime between September 15 and 28, destroying the American continents. Acting in its role as space-news fact-checker, Nasa has issued a statement refuting the lot of it. "That’s the rumor that has gone viral – now here are the facts," it said in a press release entitled 'NASA: There is No Asteroid Threatening Earth'
2/23 Video of scorned lover who cut ex's belongings in half was actually an advert for a law firm
Revenge is a dish best served cold, or viral on YouTube as seemed to be the case for one German ex-husband who uploaded a video of himself using power tools to saw his possessions in half so he could literally give his former wife half of everything owned. The video, titled “For Laura”, quickly went viral reaching nearly 5.8 million views with the description “Thank you for 12 'beautiful' years, Laura! You've really earned half.” Although the course of true love never did run smooth, it did seem that the jilted lover was taking revenge to a whole new level with the angst-ridden video. Now, however, all has been explained. The video was not created by a jealous ex, but filmed by a media-savvy legal company looking to expand its customer base
3/23 McDonald's claims the 'secret menu' is fake
The rebuttal comes following an amusing spoof article, published by the Lucky Peach, seemingly offering a smorgasbord of hidden options for the discerning customer. Among the “delights” apparently on offer are the ‘Mommie Dearest’ (five burgers speared through with coat hangers) and the Burmese Python (complete with sock). Other options include the ‘the Derrida’ – a postmodern confection consisting of a raw potato and the remains of a few chips and a partially eaten bun
4/23 Dead shark pictures might be fake
Photographs of an enormous Tiger shark fished off the eastern Australian coast have emerged on social media. NSW newspaper The Northern Star claims the four metre catch was made by a local fisherman known only as “Matthew”. The images first emerged after Byron Bay resident Geoff Brooks posted them to his Facebook timeline. However, Mr Brooks has subsequently admitted he did not take the images – but continued to claim that the photographs are “real”. Social media users have criticised the images, with some claiming they are fake
Geoff Brooks, via Facebook
5/23 A fried rat had been served in KFC
Facebook went into full "wtfffffffffffff" mode after a man posted a picture of what he claims was a fried rat he had been served in KFC. As news of the supposed Kentucky Fried rat was reported and spread, the incident took a dramatic turn with Dixon sealing it in a bag and freezing it as evidence. KFC has denied it is in the business of plunging rats into boiling hot oil however, and claims the whole thing is a 'hoax'. A DNA test followed, and shows that the nugget, although distinctly rodent-shaped, was just chicken all along.
6/23 British scientists clone dinosaur
An extraordinary story of the world’s first cloned dinosaur got a lot of traction on Twitter and inspired alarmist comparisons to Jurassic Park in March this year. It was also, not unexpectedly, a complete fake, including completely fabricated quotations from 'experts' and a picture that is actually of a very young kangaroo.
7/23 Mohammed Islam - A boy who 'made $72m' in his lunch break
A New York schoolboy who reportedly made $72 million (£46 million) by trading stocks during his lunch breaks has admitted making the whole story up. Mohammed Islam, from Queens, originally told the New York Magazine he started dabbling in penny stocks aged just nine and developed a “life-long passion” for trading that was paying off. But in a later interview with the New York Observer, he said the whole story was fake and he had not made any money at all.
8/23 World’s oldest tree has been accidentally chopped down by loggers in Peru
Several websites carried the “news”, seemingly without realising the entire story appears to be a hoax. It first appeared on the World News Daily Report – a fake news website carrying articles including “Isis launches satellite” and “Pterodactyl sighting in New Guinea terrorises villagers”.
9/23 Ryan Gosling adopted a baby
A Father's Day Facebook post from "Ryan Gosling" detailing how he adopted an orphaned baby for a year attracted Likes from almost one million users. This was despite it having all the hallmarks of a hoax, including a link for users to "save thousands of children and meet me while doing it" actually redirecting to the purchase page for a Gosling t-shirt.
10/23 Macaulay Culkin dead hoax
How to reassure the world you’re still alive after the internet reports that you’re dead? Fake your own murder on Instagram, like Macaulay Culkin. The actor posted the above image via his band Pizza Underground’s account yesterday, following several false rumours that he’d passed away. One particularly misleading story, originally posted on MSNBC.website (not to be confused with the real MSNBC), read: “Sources are reporting that Macaulay Culkin, best known for his role as Kevin McCallister in Home Alone and sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, has been found dead at the age of 34.”
11/23 'Crabzilla' - A fifty-foot crab dwelling somewhere off the English coast
A satellite picture of the so-called crab, aptly dubbed ‘Crabzilla’, has gone viral after first surfacing on Weird Whitstable, a website for the supernatural curated by illustrator Quinton Winter, which deals in “phantoms, mysteries, tall tales, and artefacts”. The shadowy figure of a colossal crustacean, apparently spotted in the murky waters of Whistable, in Kent, dwarfs boats and cars on the pier it lurks besides. The invertebrate expert Paul Clark at the Natural History Museum in London has branded the photo a hoax.
Photo courtesy of Weird Whitstable http://www.weirdwhitstable.co.uk
12/23 Ebola 'risen from the dead' zombie story
The story of dead Ebola victims rising from the dead, with the first "picture" of one of the zombies that has gone viral, (if it weren't glaringly obvious) is a hoax. The image on the article, while impressive, is in fact doctored picture of a zombie from the film World War Z. It appears to have taken an image of one of the film’s lab-zombies, and merged it with this picture of a “realistic movie sculpture” from Schell Studios, which the messageboard 8chan pointed out.
13/23 'Nasa Confirms Six Days of Darkness in December 2014'
‘Satirical news site’ Huzlers.com has been spreading fake story about upcoming six days of darkness, far and wide on the web, taking in numerous Facebook and Twitter users and encouraging them to post about what they’re going to be up to during the six days of darkness. The story on the vaguely official looking website titled “Nasa Confirms Earth Will Experience 6 Days of Total Darkness in December 2014!” claims that an incoming solar storm is to blame, causing "dust and space debris to become plentiful and thus block 90% sunlight”. This is false. Although solar storms certainly are real phenomena (they occur due to fluctuations in the Sun’s magnetic field) they’re not like terrestrial storms that can blow up dust and dirt.
14/23 Meet Thea, Norway's 12-year-old child bride
A Norwegian campaign highlighting the issue of child marriage has gained global attention after a blog seemingly written by a child bride-to-be went viral. The blog, apparently written by 12-year-old girl 'Thea', charts her thoughts and feelings towards her impending marriage to 37-year-old Geir. However, the blog was carefully created by Plan, an international aid organisation working on strengthening the girls’ rights, to bring home the issue of child brides.
Courtesy of Plan
15/23 Obsessive selfie-taking classified as a mental disorder
An article claimed that the American Psychiatric Association (a real body) had classified new mental disorder “selfitis” as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media”. The origin of the article should have tipped off readers, however - it first appeared on a site whose owners admit that “when writing [...] we spice it up with figments of our imagination”.
16/23 Shipwrecked British woman saved by Google Earth
The extraordinary story of Gemma Sheridan, a woman from Liverpool saved by Google Earth after seven years stranded on a desert island, whipped up a storm among social media users. Aside from the fairly incredible details involved in the story, a wide range of issues showed it is quite clearly a hoax - including pictures and whole swathes of text borrowed from other (real) reports.
Digital Globe via Waffles at Noon
17/23 Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is dead
The Rock became the latest victim of a death hoax this month after rumours circulated that the action star had died while filming a dangerous stunt for the upcoming Fast and Furious 7 on Thursday. The bogus report was created by Global Associated News, a website responsible for some of the most outlandish recent fake celebrity deaths, and went viral on Twitter and Facebook.
18/23 Vaccines can cause autism
A serious myth, this, and one which has repeatedly been rejected by scientific studies. The latest of these came earlier this year when a study that examined brain tissue samples donated by children who had died showed autism may actually develop in the womb during pregnancy. One scientist said the findings 'call sharply into questions other popular notions about autism'.
19/23 Homeopathic remedies have medicinal properties
Proponents of homeopathy claim that it stimulates the body to heal itself, and is based on the principle of ‘like cures like’. But an Australian scientific body became the latest earlier this year to carry out a study showing that it actually works no better than a placebo. That story came after a homeopathic 'remedy' was actually recalled in the US because it contained traces of real medicine.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
20/23 Chinese child ruined father's passport
This picture of a Chinese passport apparently defaced by a four-year-old boy went viral around the world, despite the fact that it seems to clearly be a hoax. The picture was originally posted on Chinese social networking site Weibo by a person claiming to be the father, known as Chen, with a plea for help. But from the uniform thickness of the lines (which actually go off the page to the right) to the covering-up of identifying details, the 'drawing' looks a lot like an adult’s handiwork on Photoshop or MS Paint
21/23 MH370 was caused by aliens/Snowden/the Bermuda Triangle
Since the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on 8 March with 239 people on board, the story has sparked a host of myths and conspiracy theories. While some of these theories as to how the flight could have just disappeared have not been discounted by authorities, others have tended towards the unusual, bizarre and downright ridiculous. One Malaysian politician claimed the Bermuda Triangle must have moved to Vietnam. A 'citizen reporter' said radar picked up a UFO. Another said there was a complicated link to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. None are likely to be true.
22/23 Morrissey joined Twitter
Morrissey fans rejoiced earlier this week when the verified Twitter account @itsmorrissey posted its first tweet since joining in 2009, saying: 'Hello. Testing, 1, 2, 3. Planet Earth, are you there? One can only hope...' It seems that the Twitter blue tick seal of approval doesn’t mean as much as it used to, after Morrissey confirmed in a statement that he does not have an account on the social media site.
23/23 Chinese people ate doves at wedding, sued ugly wives and only sing numbers from takeaway menus
In November last year, the western media was bombarded by a host of stories involving Chinese misrepresentations. One involved a Chinese man suing his wife 'because he was ugly' and winning - but was later debunked by an expat magazine in Shanghai. Here, Nyima Pratten writes about how our media depict Chinese people in an unreasonably negative way.
The internet has a long tradition of baiting the gullible and misleading the inattentive, from fake online pregnancy tests, and Photoshopped images offering proof of unlikely events, to mischievously altered Wikipedia pages. Even Lord Justice Leveson, in his report on the culture and ethics of the British media, repeated the peculiar assertion on Wikipedia that this newspaper was co-founded by one “Brett Straub”. But the more fantastic and ridiculous the claim that’s believed, the funnier we find the gullibility. When Jack Warner, the former vice-president of Fifa, attempted to defend himself against corruption accusations using an article he’d printed from The Onion website, we laughed. We scoffed at the sense-of-humour bypass that caused Radio 1 to conduct a follow-up phone-in to a Daily Mash story claiming that there’ll be no one called Gary left in Britain by the year 2050. But when a fake news story with a believable headline takes people in, the resulting confusion isn’t particularly funny. At best, it prompts a raised eyebrow and a weary sigh. So why bother? That’s the question now being asked of websites such as National Report.
“There’s a spectrum of misinformation out there,” says Adrienne LaFrance, the senior editor of The Atlantic and a former author of Gawker’s myth-debunking blog, Antiviral. “It’s not clear which websites are crimes against journalism and which ones are crimes against comedy. Some hide behind satire or parody, but it’s not clear because it’s not funny.” And as Rafferty points out, the aim of satire shouldn’t be about fooling people; it should be about making them laugh. “We’re always looking at our headlines and thinking, ‘Could someone actually believe this?’” he says. “And if it does [seem believable], then we haven’t done our job properly.”
The founder of National Report, Allen Montgomery (a pseudonym), has claimed in interview that his efforts are an attempt to highlight the spread of misinformation. “National Report is often the first place people actually realise how easily they themselves are manipulated,” he said to the marketing website Digiday late last year, “and we hope that makes them better consumers of content.” It’s hard to know how disingenuous his claims are, but one thing is clear: as a strategy for bringing in traffic and advertising revenue, making up fake news is a winner. In the rush to be first with news, sensational stories will inevitably slip under the radar and on to social media. “The way people share stories and information – that’s human nature,” LaFrance says. “We live in a world where people say outrageous things. Some of the things you hope aren’t true actually turn out to be true. So you can understand why people believe things that in retrospect are clearly untrue – and I think part of that is to do with assimilating to this new, real-time news environment.”
A new British news site, Quirker, is devoted exclusively to the bizarre-but-true. “So much of the news we see is pre-digested press releases from marketeers and spin doctors,” says Michael Moran, a journalist involved with the site, “so we like to hear things that are weird and funny and relatable. Everybody’s weird. Everybody wants to feel like they’re not on their own and that there are weirder, sillier and more ridiculous people out there.” But our commitment to sharing weird stories can create a disorienting online landscape when a percentage of the ones heading our way are simply false. This confusion is exacerbated on social media, where legitimate stories often look identical to fake ones. In an attempt to combat this problem, Facebook tested a feature last year whereby stories from sources known to be fake or satirical were appended with the word “SATIRE” to stop people becoming confused. Other ideas have been floated: a recent article in New Scientist pondered whether Google’s natural language-processing techniques could generate a “knowledge-based trust score” for each source, giving an indication of “truthiness”.
Regardless of attempts to steer us away from fake news, Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, believes that our brains can be stubborn. “Once we learn something,” he wrote recently in a paper exploring misinformation, “we are more likely to retain it intact… Once we hear something and come to accept it – even if it’s not core to our beliefs and worldview – it’s still difficult to dislodge.” While fictitious quotes from US politicians are all very jolly, fake stories run by National Report about the supposed spread of Ebola in the US caused genuine public alarm, and strategies used to promote fake news are being used to promote propaganda. Last year, a UN representative claimed that Isis had ordered all girls and women in and around Mosul to undergo genital mutilation, but journalists at i100 and The Independent established this was based on a fictitious edict issued by a group opposing Isis. The World Economic Forum has now called “the rapid spread of misinformation” one of the top 10 issues facing the world.
It doesn’t help, of course, that lies equal clicks and clicks equal cash, in the form of advertising revenues. In the aforementioned paper, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content”, Silverman addresses the financial motive websites have to promote lurid but untrue stories, even if they’re simultaneously questioning their veracity. He quotes Ryan Grim, the bureau chief in Washington for The Huffington Post: “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views.”
But combating the spread of misinformation is a thankless and unrewarding task, with debunking articles – such as the Snopes rebuttal of the Christie story – rarely achieving the widespread traction of the original. “Sensational stories have a tendency to spread faster than [the words of] the person telling you to think logically,” LaFrance says. “I loved doing Antiviral, but I went on a radio show and someone asked me how it felt to be such a killjoy! I’d never thought of it that way – I just really enjoy separating fact from fiction.” Silverman notes that debunking has to be handled carefully; people who’ve been taken in can be exceedingly touchy about their poor judgement. “Chastising someone as stupid or gullible for sharing a false viral story is a bad strategy,” he writes in the paper. “Tone and approach matter; the person being corrected needs to be able to let down his or her guard to accept an alternate truth.”
All in all, the spread of fake news seems unassailable. The presence of a “satire” disclaimer seems sufficient to head off legal challenges, and the snowballing viral effect is sufficient to crush debunking voices. But LaFrance, perhaps surprisingly, agrees with the editor of National Report that forcing us to sift through sources both true and untrue is ultimately an educative process. “People who aren’t journalists are now privy to the messy way that news unfolds and facts come together,” she says. “That brings a level of understanding people might not have had when they just picked up a newspaper or watched a newscast. If that inspires more critical thinking about our relationship with information as it comes to us, that’s a really positive thing.” So if you spot someone sharing something that you know is outlandish, strike a blow for truth and let them know. But be nice about it. After all, we’ve all had our moments of gullibility, and we certainly haven’t had our last.
Would you believe it? Falsehoods that made the news
Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked
Two Bangladeshi newspapers apologised after repeating satirical site The Onion’s claims that Neil Armstrong was now reconsidering whether he ever went to the Moon at all. “We thought it was true so we printed it without checking,” said associate editor Hasanuzzaman Khan, shortly after being rumbled.
Texas Town Quarantined After Family Of Five Test Positive For The Ebola Virus
At the height of the panic surrounding the spread of Ebola, this story, published on the National Report website – one of many it concocted about the virus – received more than 330,000 Facebook likes and more than 1.2 million shares across social media. It was, needless to say, completely untrue.
Maplin Is Where Men Meet For Sex
The electrical-goods retailer expressed its unhappiness with this suggestion, made in a story published by The Daily Mash, presumably because it thought people might believe it. There are no reports that anyone actually did.
Sarah Palin To Join Al Jazeera as Host
The Daily Currant put forward the unusual idea of the former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin taking a role at the Qatari news channel. The Washington Post immediately followed it up with a blog post entitled “Sarah Palin’s plan to reach ‘millions of devoutly religious people’ through al-Jazeera”.
Macaulay Culkin Found Dead at Age 34
When a fake MSNBC website announced the death of the Home Alone actor, social media dutifully sprang into action. Within hours, Culkin was posting pictures on Instagram mocking the announcement and thus proving his continued existence.
ClickHole: They Said What?
The Onion offshoot ClickHole regularly posts fictitious and rather mundane quotes from celebrities in a feature entitled “They Said What?” Russell Crowe, Salman Rushdie and the American news presenter Anderson Cooper are among the celebrities to accuse ClickHole of making the quotes up. Which, of course, it did.Reuse content