Can't Handle the Truth

Fake News Has Terrifying Power Over the Real World

This week reminded us how hoaxes can have horrible consequences.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
June 10, 2017, 2:38pm
Kind Salman of Saudi Arabia. Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

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.

The New York Times made a neat infographic this week about a lie winding its way through the layers of sketchy media and becoming what looked like a real news story. In this case, someone wrote a weird piece of (possibly satirical) military fan fiction about a Russian war plane using advanced electronic weaponry to disable an American destroyer. The fake story kept popping up here and there for about three years, changing substantially with each iteration, before a version of it wound up on the Fox News website. (Fox has since deleted the story.)


What's worrying about this isn't the fairly minor takeaway from this specific case (someone might think Russians have slightly better weapons than they actually do). The scary part here is twofold: A) it's not an isolated incident, as we saw last month when Sean Hannity insisted on covering a false and deeply toxic conspiracy theory. And B) the President of the United States is a Fox News fanboy.

This week was full of examples of fake news having real consequences:

The Leader of Qatar Is in Love with Iran

Back on May 23, a news report from the state news agency of Qatar said Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, had given an inflammatory commencement speech at a military graduation ceremony. He supposedly used his time on stage to lambast his fellow Arab leaders' anti-Iran statements made while Donald Trump was visiting Saudi Arabia. The speech touched on many sensitive, hot-button topics. For instance, he also had kind words for Hamas, a group that other Gulf countries (and the US) considers a terror group.

But that news report turned out to be the work of hackers, and if the intention was to inflame existing regional tensions, it worked perfectly. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) responded almost immediately, by blocking all Qatar-based media on the May 23. Things escalated further about two weeks later when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives, and Bahrain all cut off ties to Qatar. This was the result of not just the report, but longstanding tensions over Qatar's alleged support of terrorist groups.


This situation is now a crisis, jeopardizing the wellbeing of the people of Qatar. The isolated country, which is reliant on foreign trade, can no longer use its land border or receive shipments of food.

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Families of Sandy Hook Victims Are Just Faking It

Some conspiracy theories are goofs that seem like no one could possibly believe them, and it wouldn't really matter if anyone did—the Dead Munchkin Myth for instance. So it's sometimes hard to get into the headspace of someone like Lucy Richards, who believed so completely that the 2010 Sandy Hook shooting was a false flag attack designed to undermine her Second Amendment rights—a totally bonkers idea that makes no sense—that she sent death threats to the father of a six-year-old victim last year.

This week Richards was sentenced to five months in prison followed by five months of house arrest. "Your words were cruel and insensitive. This is reality and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts," District Judge James Cohn told her at her sentencing.

Scientists Agree: Climate Change Is A Hoax

According to James Delingpole, a British climate change denier who writes a lot of breezy but haphazardly researched blog posts, there's a new consensus on climate change. That merited a Breitbart post headlined "'Global Warming' Is a Myth, Say 58 Scientific Papers in 2017." I don't know how many clicked on this post, but since it's attracted nearly 10,000 comments already, I gather it was read and shared extensively.

The substance of Delingpole's claim comes from a post at something called "No Tricks Zone," which aggregated 80 graphs that are only connected insofar as they're climate-related and not "hockey stick"-shaped. Delingpole's post acknowledges recent climate change, but basically dismisses it as insignificant in the long run, and says the idea that climate change merits changes in human behavior "is a fake artefact."

But nothing Delingpole quotes even remotely disproves the extremely true fact that Earth is rapidly increasing to a temperature inhospitable to life as we know it, because humans emit greenhouse gases.—a very good and valuable website—contacted the climate scientists whose graphs were being used in this way, and the ones who responded seemed revolted. For instance, the University of Maine's Paul Mayewski, who wrote one of the studies, called the Delingpole article "yet another example of downright lies."

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