BY STEVE BATES
Welcome to the first lesson in my course on mastering fake news. Today we examine four prominent fake news stories and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In all four cases, the merits of the fake story centered on the use of facts.
Let’s start with the most famous fake news story of 2016, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy:
Hillary, Top Democrats Linked to Child Sex Organization
(Washington; Oct. 30, 2016)–Internal Democratic Party emails released today by WikiLeaks demonstrate that top party figures knew of—and might have participated in—child trafficking and prostitution.
The emails allegedly authored by party official John Podesta identify several pizza restaurants in Washington where children were kept and abused. The emails hint at secret tunnels connecting some of the locations, apparently allowing the Democrats the move between them with impunity.
One source said that presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is among….
This story has been largely debunked. While it might be true that “pizza” is code for “child sex” in some circles, operating a massive child sex ring in secret right under the noses of a million Washington area residents would be difficult. Particularly for Democrats, who are historically inept at keeping secrets or managing large projects of any kind.
While it’s true that the Democratic Party supervised the construction of secret tunnels connecting its offices with several popular pizzerias in the city, this was done to prevent embarrassment at the pizza addiction afflicting many left-leaning politicians in town.
What went wrong here? By identifying the pizza parlors by name, the conspiracy theorists allowed local police to search the facilities and rule out the kind of sex trafficking that was alleged. Using fake names for the restaurants—or not identifying them—might have given this bogus story a longer life.
Let’s turn to a trickier fake news piece:
5-Year-Old Boy Gets Last Wish; Dies in Arms of Santa Claus
(Knoxville, Tenn.; Nov. 20, 2016)–A 5-year-old Tennessee boy with a terminal illness had just one last wish: He wanted to meet Santa Claus. Not long ago, he got that wish.
But the story has a bittersweet ending. The boy, whose name is being withheld at the request of his family, died in the arms of Santa.
The encounter began when a nurse at a local hospital called a professional Santa, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who rushed to the hospital to be at the boy’s bedside in time to grant his wish.
Schmitt-Matzen said this week that although he could not locate the Hatchable toy that the boy requested, seeing the young man smile at him as the disease claimed his life was….
This one fooled a lot of us. Maybe we just wanted to believe it. Or we couldn’t accept the possibility that anyone would invent such a tale. Apparently, there was no such dying boy, according to local hospital officials.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported the story, and then retracted it. Schmitt-Matzen stuck to his account. However, the Santa reportedly declined to identify the family or even the hospital where the encounter purportedly happened, stating the he wanted to protect the family.
This fake news item could have been salvaged if the author had simply refused to identify the fake Santa or the town where this occurred. Or if he or she had written that the real Santa Claus had visited the dying boy. Try to disprove that one!
Now, a fascinating fake news item from a couple of years ago:
Texas, 3 Other States to Permit Executions by Lightsaber
(Austin, Tex.; June 17, 2014)–Texas has joined three other states that will execute convicts using lightsabers instead of a cocktail of drugs. The Legislature voted 898 to 2 today to approve the new execution method. The two dissenting legislators wanted more information about the cost of the lightsabers.
In recent years, attempted executions in Texas, Louisiana, Indiana and Nevada have been delayed by a shortage of the drugs typically used to kill those sentenced to death. Some states tried home remedies, often to no avail.
Gov. Rick Perry hailed the shift to lightsabers, terming them “an elegant weapon”….
This one was relatively easy to debunk. The crystals that power real lightsabers can be found only on one distant planet. And not every local corrections officer can operate a lightsaber properly. It takes training under a Jedi Master.
Finally, this classic fake news article:
Man Walks on the Moon
(Houston, Tex.; July 21, 1969)–Two men from Earth set foot on the Moon for the first time last night.
As he exited the Apollo spacecraft and stepped into the gray lunar dust, astronaut Neil Armstrong declared: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” He was soon joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
The moon landing was hailed as an historic event….
People who claimed at the time that the moon landing was staged in Hollywood were laughed down. But we now know that they were right. Sending a spaceship to the Moon? If it were possible, Elon Musk would have done it.