6 Ways to Get Anyone to Believe a Clearly Fake News Story
We've previously talked about obviously fake news stories that somehow managed to fool the mainstream media. As this sort of thing continues to pile up, it seems like it's worth taking a deeper look at why. What kinds of bullshit are best streamlined to slip past our bullshit detectors?
Here are some of the top methods that fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.
A "Study" Shows Some Bad-Mouthed Group Has Lower IQs
Every self-respecting Internet snob knows that real PC users use Chrome or Firefox Web browsers (or something more obscure), and that Internet Explorer is for children and grandmothers, and any adult using it must be a dunce who breaks their DVD drive and complains to tech support about how flimsy their "cupholder" was.
That's why it was so easy for people to swallow a "study" claiming that IE users have lower IQs than users of other browsers. The hoaxer admitted he was just trying to make a point about IE6 and pointed out eight obvious reasons why people should have been able to tell it was fake.
But nobody was looking because we all just know that IE users are dumb, so if we see a professional looking website with a "study" on it proving what we "know," why dig deeper?
Sure, that looks solid.
Similarly, Keith Olbermann once went on air to report that parents lose 12 to 20 IQ points after having children, according to a study reported on a local fake news website (Indiana's version of The Onion). That's clearly an anti-Olbermann site there, but it's mentioned elsewhere, along with the fact he apologized on-air afterward. But childless people everywhere were probably saying, "Of course, that explains why my friends go goofy talking to their babies and buying them stupid baby products." And parents themselves were probably saying, "Well, I sure felt like a zombie for that first year, I guess that makes sense."
"At the time, I thought it was because I was tired as hell, but sure, maybe I just became dumber permanently."
And of course, there was a famous Internet-fabricated chart showing that people who voted for Bush had lower IQs, fooling big news publications like the Economist. It just seemed so obviously true to anyone anti-Bush at the time that there wasn't any need to check. And if you say you've got scientific proof that Bush himself has a lower IQ than any other president, well, no one was going to fact-check that. Certainly not Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau or The Guardian, as we've mentioned before.
I'm not saying Bush was not stupid, I'm just saying that journalistic integrity requires you to base that assessment on, like, things he's done or said, and not on fake "studies." But it's so, so tempting to say science backs you up on what you know.
I KNEW IT!
Let's put it this way: I'm pretty sure I could put together a website in multi-colored Comic Sans for the "University of Provolone" publishing a study that claims Twilight fans are 10 IQ points dumber than average, and nobody would ever call me on it.
Amazing Scientific Breakthroughs!
If you know anything about science, you know that real scientific advances are things like, "One New Protein Identified In 500 Protein Pathway That Causes Breast Cancer." Boring! Or "Researchers Discover One Possibility How Life On Mars Could Have Gotten Its Water, If There Was Life On Mars, And It Needed Water." Ho-hum!
Or something catchy like this.
Don't get me wrong, that shit is as important as hell, and it's exactly those little steps which come together by the thousands to make great scientific advances. But it's horribly boring news for Joe and Jane Newsweek Reader. That's why it always gets turned into "Cancer Almost Cured!" or "Proof of Life On Mars!"
For example: One day, a NASA researcher was talking to some friends at a party about how biological life she was studying in Spain might be similar to something that could live on Mars. Next thing she knew, there was a headline saying "NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars." Apparently she had told this to "a group of space officials" at a "private meeting," as reported by Space.com and MSNBC.
This woman is sharing her views of male-female large group social dynamics at a private meeting.
Any scientist knows that science doesn't really happen in big surprises like that, where one day nobody knows what an atom is, and the next day some lone scientist has split it and created an atomic bomb. But this happens all the time in movies, where one lone crackpot secretly discovers a cure for cancer or a formula for perpetual energy, without working with any other scientists or going off any previous research, and unveils it all at once.
That tiny print there is a list of AUTHORS of this study of breast cancer genes.
It's just that kind of movie mentality that makes people think that of course one guy would be able to beat AIDS and his genes hold the secret to curing AIDS for everyone. Soon the bad guys will come for him and there will be an exciting chase! Oh wait no, he didn't have AIDS. Maybe we could still have a chase though?
The Dumb Old Days
We've mentioned before about the Flat Earth myth, which says that people in Columbus' day were too stupid to know the Earth was round. We swallow that kind of thing so easily because of course people in the old days were much dumber than us, believing in myths and bloodletting and stuff.
There is nothing so retarded that we won't believe the "ancients" would have fallen for it. While people in the old days were kind of ignorant about many things, we might go a bit overboard overestimating their gullibility and naivete. Discoveries keep coming up showing that people of the past had more things figured out than we expected.
It doesn't have to be the ancient past, either. We were fully willing to accept that people in 1954 thought this was what a home computer would look like in the future.
I mean, they thought we would have flying cars, right? They're dumb as hell. Of course they'll believe ordinary people will fill entire rooms in their houses with computers in the future, computers that have steering wheels.
Yes, the steering while might have been a giveaway that it was a Photoshop of a Smithsonian exhibit of a nuclear sub control room.
The original photo.
I mean, don't get me wrong, people in the 1950s were very ignorant about some things, like black people having rights, but that didn't mean they went around buying bridges from con men all the time.
This SAYS Something About Our Society!
Everybody's got an opinion these days about What's Wrong With Our Society, and the best story fakers know just how to cater to it. Joey Skaggs, professional story faker, constantly pushes the right buttons in an attempt to prove some point about the media or something.
For example, he created a fake service called the "Fat Squad" that fat people could hire to follow them around and hit them if they strayed from their diet. The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Good Morning America all did stories on the Fat Squad because it's obviously so true that we fat Americans today have so little willpower to keep from stuffing food in our mouths that we need to hire bodyguards to stop us. This is a concrete and colorful example of what a shameful extreme lazy, fat America has come to, while children in Africa are starving.
On a slow news day, you just put this on the front page and "AMERICA STILL FAT" as the headline and you're good to go.
Or take the segment of society that "just knows" how the bleeding heart liberals foolishly coddle the homeless. So when they hear about an organization purporting to "arm the homeless" with guns, people like Rush Limbaugh completely accept it because it's just the sort of thing the liberals would do. Even CNN bought it. It was of course, a hoax by three college students.
And would the city of Los Angeles really spend $1 billion on jetpacks for cops and paramedics? Sure, those zany West Coast people will do anything! They are just that faddish! See what we said about government waste!
And everyone who ranted about the intrusiveness of the TSA pat-downs found it perfectly natural that one such pat-down would bring a guy to orgasm. And we all know our country is plagued by crazy conservative people who see indecency in any innocent thing, so there's no reason to doubt that a campaign to put clothes on all animals would be anything but serious.
I think the warning here is that if a news story ever makes you want to go, "See?" to someone else, you had better take a second look.
Heart-wrenching Personal Stories
JT LeRoy was a teenager who emerged from a horrible childhood of sexual abuse, drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness, to write some very well-received books about his harrowing experiences. He became a correspondent for the New York Times.
He never existed.
If your first thought was, "That is clearly a lady there," you are ahead of a lot of publishers and celebrities.
He was a manufactured character whose writing came from author Laura Albert and who was physically played by Albert's sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, wearing a lot of sunglasses and hats. Neither appeared to have been raped or lived on the street, which is a good thing in the long run, but left the audience feeling a bit ripped off.
If you think about why it took so long to discover, well, after listening to a story like that, who wants to be the one to suggest to that person that they might be lying? Even if you were 99 percent sure they were full of it, can you imagine what a tool you would feel like if it somehow turned out to all be true?
You'd probably have to wear something like this.
Maybe that's why people were hesitant to confront Janet Cooke when she wrote about Jimmy the 8-year-old heroin addict. Instead, they gave her a Pulitzer Prize, while city officials tried to hunt down the kid to try to save him. It was only when their well-meaning efforts turned up no such kid that they started to call her on it. Before the search it would have been really hard to question her without looking like the bad guy.
It's especially horrible because the fakers are relying on the best things in human nature -- generosity, compassion, trust -- to get away with their lies. One of the worst examples of this is cancer fakers, people with what I can only assume are severe mental issues that pretend to have cancer (even shaving their heads) in order to get money and sympathy from friends and strangers. One woman got her dream wedding and honeymoon paid for that way.
Did you know the average American wedding costs $27,800? It's a bald-faced scam is what it is.
Sometimes we're easy targets because of the bad side of our human nature, but sometimes because we are good. I guess we just have to figure out how to be more wily while still staying good.
Anything Can Happen In A Foreign Country
When I say "Japan," you might think of the earthquake first, maybe some anime, maybe ninjas, maybe that douche at work that has a kanji tattoo but doesn't know what it means. But soon enough you will think of some weird news item like schoolgirl panties in vending machines or kissing robots.
We've just accepted that anything is possible in foreign countries, so naturally the New York Times and The Guardian have no problem reporting that LED lights in people's mouths are the new trend in Japan, without checking it or anything.
And of course one of those lovable Indians with the cute accents would sue Axe/Lynx body spray because he really thought it would physically attract women to him, and was upset to find out it didn't. Because foreigners are very literal! You always have to explain expressions to them. They think cows are sacred, of course they think body sprays are magic potions!
They think our commercials are documentaries. Like space aliens do.
And not only are foreign people capable of anything, foreign locations are capable of adhering to completely different laws of physics. It was kind of touching to see news sources as disparate as Fox News and The Huffington Post come together to placidly accept that some kind of scientific phenomenon (in China) could create (not reflect) the image of an entire, detailed city out of fog and water.
That whole thing was supposed to be a mirage.
It took a blogger to catch that there had been a mistranslation of a Chinese report on the images being filmed, which were supposed to show the devastation of a massive flood, which would explain why they look exactly like video footage of a flood. The Chinese passerby being interviewed thought it looked like a "fairyland" because the city was fucking submerged in water and shrouded in fog, not because it appeared out of nowhere.
The news outlets went to experts, who, instead of saying, "That's not a mirage, you dumbass," tried to explain it using known phenomena like "fata morgana," which at best can only make vague shadowy shapes.
This is a real "fata morgana" mirage. Notice they don't come in color.
Try Googling for "Chinese mirage" even now though, and you'll still find tons of news sites presenting it as real, trying to explain it or asking, "Could this be a real?" and pretty much nothing explaining that it was a mistake. Nope, all the news outlets just tried to stop talking about it and hoped no one would ever mention it again.
For more from Christina, check out 5 Topics Guaranteed to Elicit (Condescending) Advice and 6 Secret Monopolies You Didn't Know Run the World.