The ‘Fake Melania’ Conspiracy Theory Is Toxic, Cynical Spam

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.

One notion about The Fake News Problem that you’ll hear occasionally if you spend time around Silicon Valley types is that fake news is basically “spam that people want to read,” in the words of tech prognosticator Benedict Evans. This can be kind of a soothing way to think about fake news. If you assume for a second that most hoaxes are just spam cluttering up the internet’s many “inboxes,” it suggests that internet hoaxes exist not to destroy the world or undermine American democracy, but as part of someone’s get-rich-quick scheme.

But while this spam idea might be a refreshing rhetorical framing, I’m still a fake news alarmist, because the current wave of internet hoaxes are downright vicious in their parasitism.

Take the example that the New York Times spotted this week: It turns out publishers of fake articles have been paying Google to have their bullshit material served as ads disguised as links to legitimate news sources. This is a practice Google calls “tabloid cloaking,” where a lie—say a fake story about Melania Trump moving out of the White House—seems to be a Vogue article, but it’s actually a banner ad for some snake oil beauty product. “No surprise there,” I hear you saying, but here’s the kicker: These hoaxers have been getting these ads placed on hoax-debunking websites Snopes and PolitiFact, where people visit specifically to get a break from lies, where the editorial content is trustworthy and fact-based, and where readers’ guards may be down.

It’s like the truth equivalent of getting a penicillin shot, only to find out the needle had hepatitis C in it. And this week, symptoms of internet’s infection showed no signs of improvement.

The first lady’s body double was on TV

Speaking of Melania Trump, there’s a persistent rumor that she hates being around her husband that has become a meme of sorts in #Resistance land. A viral tweet posted on Tuesday by some weed salesman named Joe Vargas riffs on that theme:

Regardless of whether or not this is some kind of cynical, spammy attempt to drive traffic to his pharmaceutical business, Vargas acts as if he’s genuinely convinced that Melania had really been replaced with a body double. Over the days following his ultra-viral tweet, he continued to tweet sanctimony about how the White House is out to “debunk” him, provide what he apparently considers further evidence of his bonkers theory, retweet just about every publication that picked up his conspiracy theory, from the BBC to the Daily Mail, and, of course, post about how great his weed products are.

The post was so popular that Snopes posted a side-by-side comparison showing Vargas’ phone picture of an image of Melania on his TV alongside to a screengrab of the same moment from CNN. It’s obvious that Melania was standing next to her husband, and there were plenty of other photos of the (real) first lady taken that day. So there really is nothing to this rumor.

Don’t get me wrong, most people I saw posting about this were joking around. But it seems for every savvy news consumer, passing around the “joke” with the correct amount of irony, there’s a credulous conspiracy theorist buying into it. Please don’t make the internet worse.

There was an In-N-Out pop-up in New York

A now-deleted Facebook post earlier this week advertised that a California-based company called In-N-Out was preparing to sell a limited number of hamburger sandwiches in New York City, a community where, apparently, there are no such food items available.

Over 8,000 burger-starved New Yorkers announced their intention to buy sandwiches at the In-N-Out event. But they would soon be disappointed when In-N-Out’s corporate headquarters informed the public that the Facebook announcement was a completely unfounded hoax, created for reasons unknown. In-N-Out’s post about the event has also been deleted.

According to the New York Post, which recorded the comments posted on both deleted posts before they disappeared, users called the hoax “a fucking war crime,” said “fuck you to the shitty asshole that created this event,” and called the unknown person “a piece of garbage.”

Immigrants started the California wildfires

On Tuesday, in the aftermath of a series of deadly fires in northern California that claimed at least 42 lives, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano had to state for the record at a press conference that no undocumented immigrant had been arrested for arson in connection with the fires. “I wanted to kill that speculation right now so we didn’t have things running too far out of control,” Giordano told reporters.

I’ll give you one guess which publication was spreading rumors suggesting that bloodthirsty illegal aliens are running amok in the US. Yeah, it was Breitbart.

See, after a real event on Monday in which a homeless man named Jesus Fabian Gonzalez was arrested near the wildfires for starting a small fire he claimed he had lit in order to keep warm, Brietbart ran a story with the headline, “ICE Detainer Issued For Suspected Wine Country Arsonist in Sonoma Jail.” The Breitbart story was widely shared, attracting 715 comments, including “How many more innocent Californians must die on the alter of democrat immigration polices?”

At some point a clarification was added to the top of the page. “Consistent with our subsequent coverage of the California wildfires, this story has been updated to clarify that Jesus Fabian Gonzales is not suspected of the recent Sonoma County fires that killed 40 residents,” the note says.

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