Hawaii's Mistaken Ballistic Missile Alert Shows How Fake News Spreads

And more stories that turned out to be nothing.

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Jan 13 2018, 10:06pm

Some missiles, none of which launched on Saturday. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty

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.

I woke up Saturday morning to a horrifying voicemail from my mom, who is currently in Hawaii. The beginning of what she's saying got cut off, so it starts like this: "...there's a ballistic missile headed to Hawaii. So everybody's kind of alarmed and waiting to see if it's true or not." I tried to call her back, but couldn't get through (My dad thinks the cell towers in Hawaii were jammed up with people trying to call their loved ones.) For the next minute or so I googled around, trying to see what was going on, and all I found were a bunch of screengrabs of the emergency alert that had gone to everyone's phone in Hawaii. It said a missile was on its way, and ended with "THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

By the time I called back, my folks were feeling better. They'd gotten confirmation that it was a false alarm, but not before taking shelter at the bottom floor of their hotel, and checking how long it would take an ICBM to get from North Korea to Hawaii (answer: less than 20 minutes).

As of this writing, all we know is that the false alarm was caused by human error. Needless to say, it's kinda fucked up that someone's mistake—reportedly the pressing of a wrong button—sent the entire country into an all-out panic, which Hawaiian Senator Brian Schatz called "inexcusable." Then again, look at Japan's earthquake alarms. Those are pretty well-regarded as a way to save thousands of lives, so we don't tend to dwell on that time in 2016 when a fake magnitude 9 earthquake made everyone in Japan shit their pants. Better to be occasionally freaked out beyond belief than sorry I suppose?

On the other hand, as David Foster Wallace once asked in a 2007 essay about US anti-terrorism measures, "Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?" Eleven years later, and we have our answer. It looks like this is that future, and it kinda sucks.

Anyway, here are some other things that weren't true this week:

A black Starbucks barista was putting shit and blood in people's drinks

For some reason, Starbucks is one of the arenas where unhinged conservatives insist on waging the dumbest battles of their culture war. They (supposedly) make baristas write "Trump MAGA" on their cups, thus forcing them to say "Trump MAGA" out loud (which I guess is a victory for the president for some reason?). They also invent stories about Starbucks hating The Troops, Christmas, and white people. If I had to guess, it's because their notion of this $84.6 billion corporation, with stores in almost every wealthy urban center in the world, got frozen in carbonite 20 years ago after they heard Dennis Miller ranting about coffee shops and nose piercings.

This week, it was the viral, but apparently fake story of Shanell Rivers, a black barista who was supposed to be defiling white people's drinks in disgusting ways. Supposedly, Rivers is a Tyler Durden-esque anarchist who devotes an enormous amount of energy and physical pain to her own private Project Mayhem. According to the myth, not only did Rivers intentionally expose white customers to germs as often as possible, she also painstakingly collected, dried, and pulverized dog shit in order to sprinkle it into a child's hot chocolate, pricked her own thumb to bleed onto someone's bagel, and did it all while scamming customers at the regiter. Then she (again, supposedly) bragged about it all in a private Facebook group. At one Atlanta-area Starbucks, people who had heard the rumor started phoning in so many threats—real threats—that the place had to be temporarily shut down.

Is any of it true? Doesn't look like it. Starbucks denies that any "Shanell Rivers" works anywhere in their corporation. Snopes, meanwhile, sourced Rivers's Facebook avatar to an unrelated Instagram profile and traced the initial viral post back to 4chan. So take this, and any other wild rumor about Starbucks you see on the conservative internet, with a grain of salt, and about three pumps of vanilla.

Katy Perry, Meryl Streep, and Chelsea Clinton are cannibals

Yeah, someone actually wrote this for the fake news site Your News Wire, and judging from the comments, some people believe it. I love this story. It reminds me of the stuff they used to publish in Weekly World News . Keep it up, Your News Wire.

An astronaut had a three-inch growth spurt in space

Astronaut Norishige Kanai must have thought the International Space Station had been bombarded by the sort of cosmic radiation that turned Reed Richards into Mister Fantastic, because shortly after his colleague measured him after three weeks in space, he tweeted that he'd grown "like a plant" in microgravity. He'd apparently shot up nine centimeters, which translates to about three and a half inches. That's enough to turn a puny Seth Green (5'4) into a towering Clare Grant (5' 7, and Green's wife).

Shortly afterward, Kanai's colleague pointed out that growing nive centimeters in three weeks didn't pass a smell test (It kinda seems like it would mess your skeleton to grow that fast, doesn't it?). It turned out, Kanai's body had only stretched an additional two centimeters, and he tweeted a retraction.

The retraction fascinated me most of all, because in it, Kanai called his prior tweet "fake news," but he wrote it in Japanese, which—if you're interested—is written in katakana script like so: "フェイクニュース," and pronounced "feikunyuusu." Yep, one more dumb American term has officially penetrated Japanese culture.

11 ISIS members were arrested in Dearborn, Michigan

It seems like every one of these columns has a story that can be traced back to the network of fake news sites published by "Busta Troll," also known as Christopher Blair, a guy who has seemingly deluded himself into thinking he is writing "satire," but is actually manufacturing far-right propaganda. This week's entry from Reaganwasright.com carries the byline "Flagg Eagleton," which, as Blair has acknowledged, is either his pen name or the pen name of someone whose crappy writing he publishes.

According to "Eagleton," a town outside Dearborn, Michigan, was raided this week, resulting in the arrests of 11 ISIS members, and the confiscation of dozens of suicide vests. In other words, it's still more horseshit about Dearborn—which has a large Muslim population and is arguably the center of Arab-American culture in the US—being a hotbed of terrorism. Do some scary people live in Dearborn? It's a city of 100,000 people, so yes, there is crime. Are they terrorists? Actually, no, though Dearborn can't claim to be completely free of terror-affiliated radicals. But according to the mosque-sleuthing organization known as Clarion Project (itself an anti-Muslim hate group), neither can Boston and New York City.

The point is, Dearborn is a normal, boring American city, but many people apparently can't stop freaking out about the place because a lot of it's citizens are Muslim. Publishing a fake story about Dearborn having ISIS members in it just to trick conservatives into sharing it on Facebook doesn't somehow own them for their gullibility. It just perpetuates a rumor that needs to die.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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