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.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been crying "fake news" lately amid the outcry over the ongoing persecution of her country's Rohingya Muslim minority. Since late August, Rohingya have been fleeing Rakhine State into Bangladesh in the wake of a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military. This week a UN human rights official called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
So what about Suu Kyi's charge of "fake news"? According to an investigation by the BBC, the fake news in question appears to be a whole bunch of very he-said-she-said social media posts from pro- and anti-Rohingya accounts. On one side, someone will post about how awful things are for the Muslims fleeing oppression. Meanwhile, someone else will post about how awful the violent Muslim extremists are. But both sides appear to be making their arguments by posting phony images, gleaned from unrelated crises that are often in other countries.
Don't let that description give you the wrong impression: With the international community nearly unanimously urging Myanmar's leadership to end the violence, this is hardly a situation where Suu Kyi can claim that reports of atrocities are nothing more than fabrications.
By now, the playbook is familiar: Accusations of fake news can themselves be a form of misinformation, as they allow scandal-plagued leaders to decry actual news. Suu Kyi, for her part, is not allowing journalists to come to Rakhine and see for themselves. Human Rights Watch requested late last year—before the latest round of violence—that Myanmar let independent investigators into the region, so they can generate some authentic data and actual photos. So far, no dice.
A situation like that reminds us all how important unbiased reporting is, and what damage can be done when heads of state work to discredit accurate journalism. None of the other examples of fake news this week are as serious, thank god:
A US Senator's daughter is a serial killer
LastLineofDefense.org, one of the internet's many "unfunny satire"–style fake news sites, posted a weird lie this week and got thousands of Facebook shares as a reward. Anne Marie Scott, the fake daughter of a fake Democratic Senator from Delaware named James Montgomery, has supposedly been murdering black men.
The story is, surprise, super racist and refers to "hood rats and thugs." The fictional lawyer in the story says Scott has "a reason to dislike young, attractive black men." Apparently this is her story:
One left when she got pregnant, forcing her to abort. One took everything she owned and slipped out in the middle of the night and the last one, when she told him about her misfortune and told him she wanted to go slow, raped her and got away with it.
Nonetheless, this resonated with the readers of LastLineofDefense.org, which has a big photo of Donald Trump and the American flag at the top of it, for some reason.
Hurricane Irma destroyed a Disney campground
This one-sentence story of hurricane destruction, posted on BreakingNews247.net—one of those annoying "prank your friends" fake news sites—is about as minor as fake news gets. If I had to guess, I'd say the person who made up the story just wanted to scare a friend who really loves Fort Wilderness Campgrounds. But it got out of control on social media, and spread to other places like Viral Disney (a site that is also home to an article "confirming" that Simba will be gay in a live-action Lion King remake).
I've singled it out for inclusion this week because it features something I've never seen before, and would love to see more often: a joke retraction. The page at BreakingNews247 is now gone, and instead there's a note that says, "It was a bad joke and has been deleted!" Then, in the same breath, it urges the reader to create their own fake news story. (Please don't).
New York Clowns Are Mad at the Movie 'It'
In some alternative universe somewhere, the movie It, which is about a scary clown, completely blindsided the clown community. In this hypothetical reality, clowns are just funny people in makeup, steeped in old-fashioned commedia dell'arte traditions, beloved by children everywhere, and they certainly don't go around scaring anyone—why would you even think that? It would follow that this totally new idea of a "scary clown" would cause a jolt in the party clown community, and that the clowns might respond by protesting this outrageous (and very novel) piece of libel.
That's the world that clowns the world over appeared to occupy last week when they protested against the movie, including John Nelson, proprietor of the New York City clown-for-hire business Clowns in Town. Ostensibly, these clowns were losing business over the movie and thought it would be a good idea to hang out around a movie theater to protest the way It depicted their noble profession.
But we don't live in that alternative reality. We live in real reality, where literally everyone is scared of clowns, and always has been. That's the reality Stephen King lived in in 1986 when he wrote the bestselling book It, the world Tobe Hooper lived in when he created the horrifying clown attack scene in Poltergeist in 1982, and it's also the world Bob Kane lived in when he created the Joker in 1940. My point is, the protests are dumb and they reek of fake news.
And we now know that's because at least one of these protests—Nelson's protest in New York—was just a publicity stunt. After some grilling by the local media, Nelson caved and admitted that he'd been "exposed." He added, "This is gonna get me in a little bit of trouble. We were hired to do this for promotional purposes."
Nelson didn't say who hired him, and he didn't say whether other, similar protests were also faked, so I won't claim every such event was completely phony, but the world certainly feels a little more orderly now that I know at least one of these clown protests was the bullshit media play it seemed to be.
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