There is so much fake stuff on the Internet in any given week that we’ve grown tired of debunking it all. Fake Twitter fights. Fake pumpkin-spice products. Amazing viral video? Nope — a Jimmy Kimmel stunt!
So, rather than take down each and every undeservedly viral story that crosses our monitors each week, we’re rounding them all up in a quick, once-a-week Friday debunk of fake photos, misleading headlines and bad studies that you probably shouldn’t share over the weekend.
Ready? Here’s what was fake on the Internet this week:
1. Some of the craziest, most controversial stuff you’ve heard out of Baltimore. There’s a lot of material under this heading this week, so let’s start with a little reminder: Fake news (and its cousin, wildly-politicized-misleading-news) often proliferates by flattering and confirming people’s biases. That type of partisan-baiting is, in fact, the entire business strategy behind sites like National Report. Which means, when it comes to truly polarizing, life-or-death news, you might not want to use social media as your primary news source. Behold:
- Freddie Gray did not have a “pre-existing spinal injury” at the time of his arrest. This stunning exclusive comes from our friends at The Fourth Estate, a right-wing blog. According to that blog’s “anonymous sources,” Gray had spinal surgery a week before his arrest, and his death was a “freak accident that occurred when Gray should have been home resting, not selling drugs.” For starters, there’s no evidence Gray was selling drugs: His charging documents indicate officers pursued him because he ran “unprovoked” and because he had a switchblade in his pocket. Meanwhile, attorneys for Gray’s family have denied that he had surgery, an allegation for which there’s also no evidence. It’s nonetheless been shared nearly 90,000 times on Facebook.
- An armed shop-owner with a shotgun did not save a Baltimore Sun reporter from a mob. Breitbart and the National Rifle Association were among two of the organizations to claim that a heroic shop-owner, armed with a shotgun, protected crime reporter Justin Fenton against rioters on Monday. Fenton himself has said, however, that a group of gang members protected him during the flare-up, and that the “guy with the shotgun” was locked inside his store. Breitbart has since clarified its story, but — as we know — corrections are rarely as viral as the original material.
- A viral photo does not show a guy protecting a white woman from rioters. The guy in said photo — Baltimore City Paper music editor Brandon Soderberg — has taken to social media and the pages of City Paper to explain that the picture actually shows him trying to restrain a drunk, out-of-control woman from going after protesters. It’s still been used, predictably, as both evidence of protester violence and as proof that the riots are (lol) a “false flag.”
- A white Baltimore resident did not hang black dolls from the trees to scare protesters. The dolls were actually placed there on April 11, far before the start of this week’s violence, by the local mixed media artist Loring Cornish (… who, for what it’s worth, is black). The piece is intended as a social critique of race and racial violence.
- Many “looting” tweets from the riots aren’t real. Motherboard has traced some of the riot’s most lawless tweets — celebratory messages about theft and looting — to a group of trolls who appear to organize on 8chan. (Not to be outdone, the fine folks of 4chan also tricked Fox 10 Phoenix into reading a bunch of senseless tweets on-air during their Baltimore coverage.)
2. NASA and the Indian government are not predicting earthquakes for North India. In the wake of last week’s Nepalese earthquake, messages circulating social media and the popular messaging app WhatsApp have claimed that other, stronger earthquakes are coming — at very specific times. Like, 8:06 p.m. This is not, needless to say, how earthquakes work — in fact, despite scientific advances, predicting individual earthquakes is still next to impossible. India’s communications minister has begged people to “show restraint” and “nor spread rumors on social media,” which sounds like wishful thinking.
3. While we’re on the subject of earthquakes, neither of these super-viral videos is from Nepal. One, which claims to show “CCTV footage of [a] swimming pool” in Nepal, has been viewed more than 770,000 times. The other, a compilation of surveillance cam footage, has been viewed more than 170,000 times. However, as the BBC’s Trending team reported Tuesday, the swimming pool video is actually from Mexico, and the compilation includes scenes from Mexico, Egypt, and an unrelated earthquake drill.
4. A “halal sex shop” is not opening in Mecca. Media outlets the world over jumped on this very sexy story from Saudi Arabia, where an entrepreneur claimed he was opening a new kind of sex shop in accordance with sharia law. Except … the entrepreneur in question doesn’t even have storefronts, and he doesn’t sell his products in Saudi Arabia. Instead, he sells his line of creams and lingerie, which are marketed to Muslims, through his Web site and in some other stores. “It’s incredible how false information can go viral!” he told France 24, adding that he’s never contacted authorities about selling products in Mecca, though he might theoretically like to. It’s that hypothetical that seems to have sparked confusion, first on the Moroccan news site Alyaoum24 and later around the world.
5. A 76-year-old woman was not kicked out of KFC for breast-feeding her 42-year-old son. More than 100,000 people have shared this obviously fake story from fake-news purveyor Newswatch 28, whose other hits include “White Castle Employee Dies After Coworker Eats Her Face.” Among many other tip-offs, dutifully recorded by the debunkers at Snopes, women only lactate after giving birth — which at age 76, is not likely.
6. Harry Reid’s brother did not beat him up. The Senate minority leader was famously injured during an exercise accident several months ago, a run-in that has spurned many frenzied conspiracy theories from the conservative set. (To wit: his brother beat him up, the mafia took out a hit.) Now we have conclusive, undeniable proof that one of those widely circulated theories is very definitely a con: A Las Vegas man confessed to making the whole brother-battle up and feeding it to a conservative blogger in order to show how often partisan media gets stuff wrong.
Did we miss any other notable fake stuff this week? E-mail [email protected] — or stay tuned until next week, because surely some more shenanigans will go down in the meantime.
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Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.