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.
On Friday, CNN dropped a bombshell report with major implications for the Trump-Russia scandal. Anonymous sources claimed that members of the Trump campaign, including at-the-time candidate Donald Trump, and his son, Donald Jr., were emailed credentials allowing them to access a stockpile of hacked documents secretly held by Wikileaks—documents that most likely originate with a Russian state-funded hacking operation.
Hours later, however, the Washington Post blew a huge, embarrassing hole in that version of events.
To make a long and convoluted story short, the crucial email that supposedly suggested a secret relationship between the Trump campaign and someone affiliated with the Russian hackers actually came after the information had been made public. In other words, the email was just letting the campaign know about something anyone could already look at. CNN has amended its story, but a retraction is arguably necessary, since the correction of that one detail downgrades the CNN story from “bombshell” to “barely newsworthy.” A generous reading of what went wrong is that multiple people misremembered what had happened and gave faulty information to CNN reporter Manu Raju. A less generous explanation is that CNN rushed a sensational story into publication without properly fact-checking other people’s statements.
I wrote last week that ABC News had botched a timeline in its coverage of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn taking a guilty plea in exchange for agreeing to testify against his former coworkers in the Trump White House, and made it sound like Flynn’s would soon testify that Trump had colluded with Russia during the campaign. Since Flynn’s actual testimony will center on events that occurred during the transition period, he probably won’t testify to anything as earth-shattering as what ABC initially implied.
Large news organizations generally act in good faith and work to correct errors. But the Trump-Russia affair is sprawling, complicated, and potentially the most important story in the country. Errors made by outlets that Trump and his supporters already decry as “fake news” just magnify the distrust that already exists and allows the pro-Trump camp to dismiss the entirety of the scandal that has already resulted in Flynn’s resignation and several indictments.
Here’s some more bullshit from this week:
One of Roy Moore’s Accusers Forged Evidence
On Friday, defenders of the Alabama Senate candidate Moore latched onto a real statement from one of Moore’s accusers and distorted it until it became fake news.
Beverly Young Nelson, one of the numerous women who has accused Roy Moore of sexual misconduct—in her case, she says that he assaulted her when she was 16—clarified to a group of assembled press on Friday that the yearbook she claims Roy Moore signed 39 years ago contains his note and signature, but that the text scrawled underneath about the time and place of the signing was her own addition. Nelson explained that it was there to remind her who Moore was.
But when the story got filtered through the editorial departments of America’s illustrious right-wing news publications, the takeaway was that the yearbook note was “forged,” and Moore was vindicated. “WE CALLED IT! Gloria Allred Accuser **ADMITS** She Tampered With Roy Moore’s Yearbook ‘Signature’ (VIDEO),” said right-wing blog and absolute garbage pile Gateway Pundit. “Roy Moore Accuser Beverly Nelson Admits She Forged Yearbook,” wrote Breitbart. Even Fox News accused Nelson of forgery in its headline, but later walked back the intensity of its story (though the url of the story still uses the word “forged”).
Moore, by the way, is looking increasingly likely to win Tuesday’s election.
A man was burned to death while napping in a crematory
@NasMaraj has a lot of followers on Twitter. It’s one of those accounts that blasts out platitudes and viral memes with a heavy dose of future horror. The trouble with following fun accounts like these is that they’re trying to gain followers for followers’ sake, and that usually means occasionally barfing out trash content from the hoaxosphere. In this case @NasMaraj barfed out a hoax from February about a morgue worker falling asleep inside a crematory, and being accidentally incinerated. (The fake news site is mocked up to resemble ABC, making it more difficult to spot.)
For a while on Thursday morning, it felt like the story was everywhere. I even spotted Chapo Trap House co-host Will Menaker sharing it, but he has since deleted his tweet. @NasMaraj, however, hasn’t deleted the original tweet, and it’s gotten 90,951 retweets as of this writing. Since that’s effectively a reward for lying to people, one cool thing Twitter might want to try when users don’t delete hoaxes is deleting them for them.
Palestinian leadership has recognized Houston as the capital of Mexico
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this column, it’s that satire is overrated.
The Beaverton is a satire site, and, viewed through a fairly sophisticated lens, its story on Wednesday, in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had recognized Texas as part of Mexico, was a pretty sick burn in response to Trump’s announcing that the US embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The piece also noted that Palestinian diplomats in Mexico would be moving to Houston.
On one hand, it works on multiple levels: It helps illustrates why Trump’s decision would be infuriating if you’re Palestinian, and it zings the United States for causing problems. What’s more, it’s not as farfetched as it sounds: some Mexican activists are actively (if somewhat trollishly) building a legal case that their country deserves a chunk of US territory, including Texas.
But on the other hand, it works on zero levels. The annoying thing about satire is that even if your heart is in the right place, Facebook distributes it too widely and indiscriminately to make sure the people reading it actually get it. On its way to getting 1.3 million Facebook shares, The Beaverton’s story crossed what I’ll call the Facebook Grandpa Threshold, and started getting debated as fact. Then it was getting shared with no indication of the source:
Eventually, the piece was awarded the ultimate trophy for excellence in bad satire: a Snopes.com article debunking it.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.