Can't Handle the Truth

Fake News Was Weirdly Fun This Week

Prince Philip is alive, and a lot of other online hoaxes were actually amusing.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
May 6, 2017, 4:00pm
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome back to Can't Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking back at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.

Living in post-truth America should be fun.

Ever since a billionaire TV celebrity who can't seem to say three true things in a row became president, the news has become a parody of itself, with even 100-percent true stories carrying a whiff of unreality. Yes, the Rock really is being encouraged to run for president. Yes, the first lady of the United States—who is encouraging rumors that she hates her husband—is passing notes to Pamela Anderson, who in turn is romantically attached to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. In its 241th season, America is running out of believable plot lines. It's tempting to just sit back and enjoy not being able to know what in your feed is true and what is the product of Macedonian teens or suburban pranksters.

But then there's the troubling phenomenon of fake news—as in, straight-up untruths—now having real-world consequences. When Donald Trump says Barack Obama wiretapped him, there's a fun minute where we all go, "LOL what a crazy thing to say!" Then there are congressional investigations, and we realize that it's actually pretty serious.

But this week, none of the nonsense being passed around online really broke through. There were hoaxes and untruths that went viral, but none were the sort likely to turn into real news a la the wiretap or Trump's (now apparently dropped) demand that there were millions of cases of voter fraud.

Here are four stories that you may have seen this week, but which you hopefully didn't believe:

Prince Philip Has Died

On Wednesday afternoon, The Daily Mail ran a story about some kind of mysterious emergency meeting at Buckingham Palace, with experts saying such a meeting was "highly unusual" and an indication that "there is something major to be disseminated." Then the UK went to bed, and the story was left to percolate over night. Publications in the US started picking it up and running with it.

At some point "unconfirmed reports" (meaning guesses) showed up all over Twitter about the death of the Queen's husband, the 95-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. Most of those guesses cited nonexistent news sources in the "French media." And then, voila: The Sun, a British tabloid, called it. He was dead.

Except he wasn't. He was just ready to announce that he wasn't going to appear in public anymore. No harm done I suppose. Particularly if you seized the opportunity to read some of the fresh explainer articles written for the occasion on why the Duke of Edinburgh isn't the king, or what would happen if the Queen abdicated her throne.

Baby Grabs IUD as It's Being Born

The tweet above is correct: It's a baby, and yep, there it is, holding a damn IUD. The creator of the hoax here isn't the person who tweeted, but a feature built into your brain that creates narratives. If the newborn baby is tightly gripping an IUD, your brain says upon seeing the image, then it stands to reason that the baby reached out and snatched it while sliding out of the womb, like a runner grabbing the baton in an Olympic relay. Then it probably screamed extra loud upon being born, as if to say, 'Fuck you for trying to stop me from ever existing!"

The real story is slightly more boring: Lucy Hellein, the Alabama mother who gave birth to the baby in question, did have an IUD (so yes, the baby is an accident), but it wasn't in the baby's hand at birth. Instead, the doctor who performed her C-section found the IUD during the operation, and stuck it in the baby's hand as a joke.

What a hilarious doctor!

Trump Never Got Mad at the Australian Prime Minister

On Thursday Trump may have accidentally clarified what he means when he says fake news. The president had a friendly meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and afterward he told reporters that a notorious phone call back in January between him and Turnbull had not been tense. "We had a very, very good call. That was a little bit of fake news," he said.

A few hours later, according to The Washington Post, he said in a speech "We had a very nice phone call. A little testy. It got a little bit testy, but that's OK"—an admission that there was at least some truth to those reports. No surprise that Trump is contradicting himself, but the specifics are telling. To Trump, "fake news" is real news that doesn't serve whatever concept of himself he needs to bring across in the moment.

Fyre Festival Was Good Actually

Fyre Festival, as you probably know by now, was an event in the Bahamas that was supposed to be a luxury-filled getaway weekend for the tiny sliver of the population who could afford to drop thousands of dollars on a music festival. But as attendees found out, it had been comically poorly organized by a bunch of inept bros. Actual amenities included hideous-looking food, tents built for refugees (full of soggy bedding due to a recent flood), and just an overall vibe of bleakness on a beach. The viral tweet above, however, implies that some Coachella-ass motherfucker named Josh had a great time there because he brought some working-class gratitude with him to the Bahamas.

Not to disparage working-class gratitude, but the image in that context-free tweet was from a piece of satire on some comedy site called The comedy wasn't malicious, and maybe neither was the tweet, but the virality hints at people passing along the post as if "Josh" is real. The notion goes hand-in-hand with posts that went around this week saying 81 percent of attendees would go back next year based on something a festival organizer claimed in an interview with Rolling Stone. (And we should know at this point not to unthinkingly trust what the festival organizers say.)

That makes very little sense. The festival was cancelled shortly after attendees started showing up. No one had fun. Fyre Festival was bad. If they're saying they'd go next year, they're saying, they'd go hypothetically, if it actually happened this time.

But to be honest, I'd go in 2018 just to see what happens. Wouldn't you?

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