Welcome back to Can’t Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
For years, a “rumor” that comedian Louis C.K. forced women to watch him masturbate has circulated in media and comedy circles. Media outlets, notably Gawker and Jezebel, tried to report out those rumors, but no one had enough information to run a story detailing the allegations, mostly because the women in question feared that by speaking out against a powerful man they would ruin their careers.
Then, in a bombshell report published on Thursday, five women (four of whom allowed their names to be used) confirmed those rumors, telling the New York Times that they’d been used as involuntary props in C.K.’s hideous sex ritual, and detailing the emotional and professional damage his abuse had caused them. C.K. confirmed the stories on Friday, as the television networks and movie distributors he was in business with backed away from him.
This is a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a hoax and a rumor. Today, we have complete certainty about what Louis C.K. did. For a long time, however, all we had were unsubstantiated—but very consistent—stories passed around by word of mouth. That made it easy for C.K. and his many defenders in the comedy world to dismiss the accusations as fake or simply refuse to talk about them.
But unlike most of the hoaxes that permeate social media these days, false rumors of sexual assault are rare, and lies tend to fall apart scrutiny. Accusing a sex abuser is not a selfish act—the only thing to gain by stepping forward is the knowledge that it hopefully won’t happen to others. In cases where a woman is accusing a powerful man of predatory behavior, she risks being smeared by his allies. That’s happened in the case of Leigh Corfman, the Alabama woman who said that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore made sexual advances on her when she was 14. Conservative pundits like Sean Hannity have defended Moore, while the despicable far-right website The Gateway Pundit has suggested that Corfman’s divorces and bankruptcies make her not credible.
Often, it takes a long time for victims to work up the courage to go public with their allegations. As we’ve seen over and over again since the Harvey Weinstein news broke, that doesn’t mean their allegations are false. Sexual assault and abuse rumors are worth taking seriously.
These rumors from the past week, on the other hand, aren’t worth it. They’re just fake:
The Sutherland Springs shooter wanted to start a war in the name of antifa
For the past two weeks, this column has checked in with the right-wing rumor mill’s laughable fixation on the idea that anti-fascists are on the verge of a bloody uprising against white people. The antifa civil war was supposed to begin on November 4, but didn’t (you would have heard about it if it did). Instead, the organizers of the nonviolent “Refuse Fascism” events that prompted all this scaremongering held small protests, with a couple more events planned for the coming weeks.
Dismayingly, in the hours that followed the nightmarish shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, leaving 27 people dead, that rumor mill revived the fake uprising the right had been fantasizing about. Mike Cernovich, who seems to want to be considered a legitimate journalist, was among the first to speculate about it:
About four hours after Cernovich’s tweet (according to a timeline about the rumor that ran on HuffPo), the antifa rumor was ostensibly “confirmed” by notorious the lie manufacturer Your News Wire. According to made-up witnesses shooter Devin Kelley “carried an Antifa flag and told the churchgoers ‘this is a communist revolution’ before unloading on the congregation,'” Your News Wire wrote. The Your News Wire story also included a fake image of Kelley’s Facebook page, featuring an antifa flag. An astonishing 264,000 people shared the fake story on Facebook.
Kelley had a personal history saturated with violence and mental illness. But nothing in his past suggests any connection to antifa, or a desire to spark a communist uprising.
Snapchat is shutting down
A viral hoax exploded on Facebook on Monday that apparently convinced many that Snapchat was shutting down. The hoax was shabbily written, making use of Chanel45news.com, one of a large family of prank sites that allow you to create a hoax in about five minutes and have it look real when you share it on Facebook.
The rumor was so widespread, Snapchat was forced to respond.
A viral post about Snapchat shutting down is pretty inconsequential, but it shows just how gullible people can be.
A white supremacist scrawled racist slurs on a car at a military academy
Back in September at the prep school that feeds cadets to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, someone scrawled racist graffiti on whiteboards near the dorms of five black student. The message was “go home,” followed by the mother of all slurs. Lieutenant General Jay B. Silveria, the superintendent of the academy, gathered the academy together and responded to the graffiti with a stern condemnation of racism, followed by a speech about the strength that comes from diversity. “If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out,” Silveria said.
The speech went moderately viral, and Silveria performed a victory lap on TV news, where anchors framed his treatment of race as a refreshing alternative to President Trump’s approach to the topic.
Ah, but it turns out there was no graffiti-scrawling white supremacist in their midst. The local CBS news affiliate reported on Tuesday that one of the cadets who reported the graffiti was actually responsible for creating the graffiti, and had subsequently left the academy.
Conservative news jumped on the story. A columnist for the Washington Examiner scolded the media for a lack of caution and said that liberal commenters should have been more skeptical of the story because “too many such incidents have turned out to be hoaxes.” A Fox News contributor who is also an active-duty Army officer similarly decried the press, writing, “Each instance of racism is fresh fodder to fuel their narrative about how America is mired in white supremacy.”
What’s truly tragic here is that this fake hate crime allows people to dismiss the idea that the US is a racist country, or that white supremacy needs to be confronted. But whatever the facts of the case, the broader points of Silveria’s speech remain very true and real.
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