I spotted three such “fact check” stories on Monday’s news wire alone, all from the Associated Press correcting stories that were spread in the United States.
The first was correcting an article believed to have originated on the news/satire website therightist.com in July and got passed on like a bad cold, which claimed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she would resign from the Supreme Court to protest the election of Donald Trump.
The fake story contained both verbatim and made-up quotes from Ginsburg, including these words, which she did not actually say: “I can tolerate this charade of a presidential campaign, but I could not live with him as president.”
The story was shared online, even though therightist.com carries a disclaimer stating “not all of our stories are true.”
The second story, shared on the GummyPost Viral Post Daily website, claims U.S. President Barack Obama pardoned rapper Corey Miller (a.k.a. C-Murder) in December.
The trouble is, Obama could not possibly have done so, since the president can only pardon federal offences and Miller was convicted of a state crime. Miller was found guilty of murder in Louisiana in 2009 for the 2002 shooting death of a 16-year-old boy.
The U.S. Justice Department posts pardons made by the president online, and the information is easily accessed, but GummyPost doesn’t trouble itself with facts; a September 2015 story on the site claims wrestler Hulk Hogan committed suicide.
The third AP story, out of Coral Springs, Fla., clears up misconceptions that a Chinese restaurant was shut down for selling dog meat.
That story went viral after appearing on the Majorthoughts “news and entertainment” website. (It occurs to me that anyone looking to a website called “Majorthoughts” for credible information might want to be a little more discerning…)
As AP reported: “Repeating an old urban legend alleging Chinese restaurants serve foods considered taboo in the U.S., it claims the ‘China chow restaurant’ in Coral Springs had a special menu offering dog meat to VIP customers. It also claims a two-month undercover police operation ended the slaughter of dogs in the back of the restaurant.”
The story cites a person who does not exist and places the restaurant at an intersection where there is no Chinese eatery. Despite the paucity of truth the story contains, the police have had to debunk it on Facebook on several occasions.
On Friday, Majorthoughts published this: “BREAKING NEWS! President Elect Donald Trump Has Suffered Massive Heart Attack On His Helicopter This Evening.”
“We’re still working to understand these events, we will keep you updated as more information comes in,” the article states, as if there were actual reporters for Majorthoughts out there scouring for facts.
What does it all mean?
There are those who would dismiss these viral websites as mere entertainment, saying they do no real harm and anyone with an ounce of common sense would see them for what they are — clickbait.
Still, like a junior high student who calls in a phony bomb threat to his school, these fake stories can have real repercussions: damaging reputations, hurting businesses, instilling fear, grief and panic unnecessarily, perpetuating cultural stereotypes, exploiting the vulnerable — not to mention the resources expended by legitimate media in unmasking those stories as lies.
Then again, when you have the president-elect of the United States tweeting untruths every day to further his agenda and belittle his opponents, should we expect a higher standard of ethical behaviour from people writing fake headlines to make a quick buck?
Maybe not, but we should applaud legitimate news organizations that value the truth enough to call out lies — wherever they find them.
As usual, Meryl Streep nailed it at the Golden Globes Sunday night, saying in her speech: “We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.”
It’s a shame she’s so underrated.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton