There’s “fake news,” and then there’s fake news. I’ve seen a number of widely different varieties in recent days.
First, a digression: I’ve always had mixed feelings about the value of competition.
Yeah, I suppose it keeps you on your toes, makes you try harder and reach new heights, etc. But in the news business, I’ve always worried about it, because the pressure to get it first can cause you to go with something too soon, and get it wrong.
I worried about that even back when there were only two news cycles in each day — a.m. and p.m. You had all those hours to work on something and get it right before you had to go to press, or, in case of broadcast, go on the air. But knowing that if you didn’t go with it today you had to wait another 24 hours created its own kind of pressure to go with what you had.
The best way to avoid letting that pressure get you into trouble was the old nostrum, “When in doubt, leave it out.” Better to leave a hole in a story, an unanswered question, than give an answer you weren’t completely sure about.
Now, with the Web and social media, there is no “cycle.” Deadline is always right now, and if you delay a minute, you take the risk of getting beat by 59 seconds.
And that produces screw-ups like CBS reporting that Tom Petty was dead early on Monday afternoon, when he didn’t actually die until 8:30 that evening — and it wasn’t officially released until midnight.
(This was particularly problematic for old media that still follow cycles. The State had a piece in Tuesday morning’s paper all about how CBS had messed up by reporting that Petty was dead when he wasn’t — and not a word about the fact that Petty actually was dead. That’s because his death was announced after press time, but hours before readers would have the chance to read the story. Very confusing.)
As “fake news” goes, that was of the honest-mistake variety. We saw an example of the more malevolent kind within that same 24-hour period. It’s the sort that arises from the modern phenomenon of everybody being a publisher — meaning that there are no rules, and no fussy editors saying “When in doubt, leave it out.” And everyone believes what they want to believe, however unlikely, according to their political prejudices.
I’m talking about the way right-wing trolls eagerly identified an innocent man as the Las Vegas shooter, simply because he was someone who fit a narrative that was appealing to them, and he had apparently been married to a woman with the same name as the actual shooter’s girlfriend:
Geary Danley was not the gunman in Las Vegas who killed at least 50 people late Sunday. But for hours on the far-right Internet, would-be sleuths scoured Danley’s Facebook likes, family photographs and marital history to try to “prove” that he was.
Danley, according to an archived version of a Facebook page bearing that name, might have been married to a Marilou Danley. Police were looking for a woman by that name in the hours after the shooting, but later saidthey did not think she was involved. To name someone as a mass murderer based on that evidence would be irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s exactly what a portion of the far-right Internet did overnight.
The briefest look at the viral threads and tweets falsely naming Geary Danley as the attacker makes it easy to guess why a bunch of right-wing trolls latched on to him: His Facebook profile indicated that he might be a liberal….
But even that, as filled with bad faith and malevolence as it was, seems less deliberate than another kind of shameless spreading of “fake news” that is all around us these days, feeding systematically on reader gullibility.
A couple of weeks back, I was watching TV and my wife was in the room looking at her iPad when she told me that The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, was killed doing a stunt on a movie set. (I’m thinking she saw this on a Facebook ad.) I said something like “Wow, I wonder why they let him do something so dangerous.” Then I made an observation about Vic Morrow and the way he died, and forgot about it.
Then, at some point the next day, it occurred to me that I’d seen nothing about the star’s death in any of the papers I had read on my iPad that morning. So I went looking, and saw that it was a hoax.
Then, this week, the same hoax started showing up in the Google Ads right here on my own blog. Click here for the screenshot.
Oh, and have you read about the passing of Michael Douglas? I have, many times. To make the weirdness even richer, when I looked up “Michael Douglas death hoax,” I found a site that fed me… you guessed it… an ad with the misspelled news of “The Rock’s” alleged death (see above).
By the way, you want to be careful Googling Michael Douglas — you might get true stories that tell you way more than you want to know.
Where does this leave us? In a situation in which we could use some old-school, skeptical editors standing between you and the lies. But that’s not going to happen. The technology exists, and it can’t be put back in the tube. Anybody can instantly publish anything for the whole planet to see, without any professional standards being involved whatsoever.
So what we need is more intelligent, skeptical readers. But let’s not hold our breath for that new species to evolve. As last year’s election showed us, and every day since confirms, there are a thousand suckers born every minute…
By the time I read this story in The State telling me the report of Petty’s death was erroneous, he was actually dead.