Oh the shell-shocking irony. On the morning of my talk to the League of Women Voters in Sonoma County about fake news last week, I came across a friend’s Facebook post of a video of thousands of red crabs crossing a road somewhere in the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma. It was fascinating. “Can you believe this?” I asked my wife as I spun my laptop around at the breakfast table to show her. Tamara was as much in awe as I was, prompting a few sighs about the wonders of nature.
What we should have been wondering, however, is the future of social media. The story was fake. The crabs were real. But the scene had nothing to do with Irma. The video was of a migration of red crabs from Christmas Island to the Indian Ocean.
OK, I admit I fell into that crab trap. But the fact is that many of those photos you saw and possibly shared about Irma and Harvey were phony as well. The picture of the airplanes at Houston airport up to their wings in water? Fake. It was a digitally created image of what LaGuardia Airport might look like years from now due to storm surge and climate change. The shark swimming next to a car on a flooded Houston freeway? Bogus. Even that picture of former President Barack Obama serving Hurricane Harvey victims — the one that came with the message “Something you will never see Trump do” — was fake. It was actually taken on Nov. 25, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
There were even “fake forecasts.” The National Weather Service issued a warning about them on Sept. 1. One claimed that Irma could become a “Category 6” hurricane — a category that doesn’t exist — and was headed toward Houston along the same path as Harvey.
Granted, this is all small potatoes. It’s hard to get too worked up about neighbors sharing fake photos of sharks. But it’s reflective of a much larger problem, one that threatens much of our civil discourse and is making lasting impacts in many areas, including possibly our elections.
In her new book “What happened,” Hillary Clinton lists the usual suspects for her loss in November — the refusal of Bernie Sanders to drop out, James Comey, WikiLeaks and what she calls “tribal politics.” All of those are certainly part of the narrative. But here’s the big culprit that involved — and took advantage of — them all: fake news. And that story is still being written.
You most likely have heard plenty about the bogus stories about Hillary having Parkinson’s disease, having sold weapons to ISIS and, of course, being the ringleader of a child sex-trafficking ring based out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. All received major traction in social media in the weeks before the election despite being thoroughly discredited.
And you’re probably already well aware of the biggest hoax of them all, about the pope endorsing Trump, a story that popped up just about three months before the election on the WTOE 5 News website, a mysterious site, now defunct, known for its fabricated and fantasy stories. According to an analysis by BuzzFeed News, the pope story was shared or liked nearly 1 million times on Facebook by the election on Nov. 8. Overall, BuzzFeed found that the top 20 fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than the top 20 real election stories posted on 19 major news outlets combined.