And mine. Big time. And we are talking genuine fakes here.

Remember Russia’s troll farm?:

The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

In the real world, as opposed to the virtual world, there had been no explosion at Columbian Chemicals. The fake news, noted above, flopped so badly that its failure came to public attention. Why? Because it was linked to a given time and place.

I suspect that Russian trollmasters will not make the same mistake again. They will not depend so much on time, place, and circumstance, facts that anyone within actual or virtual distance of the site could find out and blog about.

No. They (and their ilk, whether national, corporate, or private, of whatever purpose or ideology) will make more general accusations in future. It’s safer to malign a group or declare an apocalypse than to accuse an individual of wrongdoing or cite a non-existent disaster that is researchable locally.

As a result, widespread false stories are becoming harder to refute, for example:

– A Newswatch 33 story claimed* that in Myrtle Beach on July 4, 2015 two black teens were beaten to death by white supremacists, in critical condition

The talemakers’ claim was, as local media noted, false. There had been no shootings.

Clearly, those making the claim were riffing off versions of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by a volunteer watchman in Sanford, Florida (February 2012) and that of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson Missouri (August, 2014).

The stories may be accepted without question or context in already angry communities. The same tendency governs in false or questionable claims about arson attacks against black churches, most likely riffing off the recent Charleston massacre.

The fact that many hearers of the false news will simply fill in the blanks about what supposedly (but didn’t actually) happen, highlights the damage false news does to a community. It aggravates the sense of threat while diminishing the capacity for critical thinking about who to believe and what to do.

– In another recent case, a Baltimore mom accused Christian neighbours of poison pen threats against her, and raised $43,000 at GoFundMe. A reasonable interpretation of the story is that she wrote the offensive material herself. Neighbours denied all knowledge and “Suspicions were raised when people noticed that both Baker and the letter she allegedly received displayed the same improper use of capitalization.”

A similar claim about a violent anti-gay attack on a retauranteur in Utah seems to have been fabricated: “A post written on a GoFundMe page that had raised nearly $12,000 toward his medical expenses read: ‘Rick and his family are grateful for the expressions of support, but cannot accept this generosity. All donations are being returned to the donors.’”

– It’s not all coming from one side of a political spectrum, in case anyone wondered: From the New York Times this week, reporting on an American conservative think tank:

Last Wednesday, Stephen Moore, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation who is an outspoken supporter of an immigration overhaul, described a recent telephone call with Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, in which he said Mr. Walker had assured him he had not completely renounced his earlier support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. ][“`I’m not going nativist, I’m pro-immigration,'” Mr. Walker said, according to Mr. Moore’s account of the call to a reporter for The New York Times.

On Sunday, after three days of pressure from Mr. Walker’s aides, Mr. Moore said that he had “misspoken” when recounting his call with Mr. Walker – and that the call had never actually taken place.

“Never actually taken place.” Wow.

One disadvantage of the Internet is that it undermines our usual and sensible human tendency to seek confirmation from trusted local sources. That tendency does not always produce correct answers. But it enables us to hang a big question mark around two typical brands of false information:

First, let’s consider the false information that riffs off current events. If the breaking news event sounds just like world headlines a week or so ago, we should be more suspicious, not less.

Sound callous? Consider: Gangland shootings happen every day, which is why they are rarely world news. A fraudster could fake up a given gangland shooting story in Utah or Brussels, and get minimal attention. And, if not Utah or Brussels, then Wyoming or Amsterdam? Gangsters kill each other 24/7. Few mourn.

By contrast, attacks on minority group members or places of worship are either interesting or uncommon, so—true or false—they get lots of ink, often worldwide. So, ven where most accounts are true, they are more attractive story themes for fakers.

Second, a threat that often ties false stories together is the need to confirm certain beliefs: For example, that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, considered a strong U.S. presidential candidate, “supports” the problems caused by illegal immigration. If that matters to us, we had best go to the source before offering an opinion.

* The linked page seems to be a screen capture at present, indifferently available, and I cannot copy it. In any event, here are some examples of hoaxes spread most easily by the Internet: 

 

 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...