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.
Judging from how many sociologists and other academics have contacted me about the topic in the past few months, fake news seems to have become a source of fascination for scholars—a.k.a., the ivory tower elites who turn America's youth into unpatriotic communists. The latest published work on the topic comes from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, which studied the coverage of the 2016 election and how stories spread on Facebook and Twitter.
According to the study, "conservative media is more partisan and more insular than the left," though both liberals and conservatives had an affinity for highly biased sites, especially when it came to what they shared on Facebook. These sites aren't "fake" but tend to be so one-sided that it's hard to be fully informed if that's all you read. Examples of these sites are Breitbart—the most popular outlet on the right—and PoliticsUSA. (The study singled out the notoriously fact-challenged Gateway Pundit, a rabid right-wing site, as being in a "class of its own" when it came to spreading hoaxes.)
In this column I try to be bipartisan in my debunking. But this week, the right-wing internet reflected the worst results of the Harvard study. It spread everything from sketchy political data, to a silly misinterpretation of reality, to a vile and deliberate hoax.
Kid Rock is the clear frontrunner in his Senate race
What can we say for sure about Kid Rock's chances of becoming a US senator from Michigan? He says he's running, but there's some bureaucracy he still needs to wade through to make it absolutely clear that he's not just dicking around. And what's his name? Are people really going to punch ballots with "Robert Ritchie" on them? Or will he legally change his name to Kid Rock for the brand recognition?
Maybe more importantly, was that poll that came out late last month real? It said Kid Rock was ahead of Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by four points, and was immediately embraced by the right, including shoutouts from figures like Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
But it's not at all clear that the poll even happened. This week, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight took a very deep dive into the details published alongside the poll—which were scant—and even extrapolated from those scant details what may have been the polling methodology, if a poll was ever conducted, and found it lacking in reliability. But again, that's assuming a poll ever happened. As of this writing, Delphi Analytica, the mysterious publisher of the poll, had had its site taken down and had deleted its Twitter account. (One person who contacted Enten said that the purpose of the poll was to move political betting markets, a charge the pollster denied.)
But real or fake, the news story enhanced Kid Rock's potential political career, and may be more likely to run as a result. Already, former New York Governor George Pataki has endorsed him.
Sports Announcer Robert Lee was fired because his name triggered the libs
On Tuesday, according to CNN, ESPN said it had transferred sports announcer Robert Lee from the University of Virginia's opening football game to another event "simply because of the coincidence of his name." The network claims that Lee, who is Asian-American, was perfectly happy to take a different assignment in Pittsburgh in order to avoid a lot of online jokes—the Robert E. Lee statue near UVA's campus in Charlottesville had been the stated cause of the white supremacist rally that turned deadly a couple weeks ago.
ESPN and Lee, if he really was party to the decision (he hasn't commented publicly) were being cautious to a downright silly degree. But did ESPN do anything wrong? Only if you believe Lee had suffered in any way, which he apparently did not. But conservatives wouldn't have had anything to get hysterical about online if they acknowledged that, so the viral story on Tuesday night was that Lee lost work. The criticism was led by Clay Travis of Fox Sports, who has long alleged ESPN has a liberal bias and claimed that the network moved Lee off the game to "avoid offending" viewers. Some people then took it a step further and said Lee had been fired. There's not much evidence that ESPN was worried about offending viewers, and it's simply false to say Lee was fired.
Antifa loves to punch women
Antifa, a nebulous anti-fascist group, has become controversial lately because its members say that the proper way to fight fascists and white supremacists is to physically fight them. The black-bloc-style protestor who clobbered alt-right piece of shit Richard Spencer on January 20 may or may not have been a member of antifa, but they sparked a hashtag that has endured ever since: #PunchANazi.
With that in mind, the anonymous shitposters at 4chan unsuccessfully attempted to prank antifa this week. On Wednesday, one of them created a thread around an ostensibly devious plan: Dig up photos of the faces of women who had been abused and add text to them, like, "she deserves it for being a nazi," and then put the images on social media, and add the hashtag "#PunchANazi."
A bunch of what look like sock puppet Twitter accounts did indeed post such pictures on social media, and other participants in the 4chan thread appear to have retweeted them. Next, a few pearl-clutching right-wing Twitter accounts responded as though the photos had emerged spontaneously from bona fide antifa Twitter accounts.
This operation was a fiasco for the 4chan shitposters on many levels. No dyed-in-the-wool Nazi-hater I've met (your mileage may vary) would post something like this on social media, because in my experience hating the worst people in history goes hand-in-hand with having what's known as a "moral compass." Then again, if the idea was simply to spread the hoax, and maybe get a few far-right media figures to retweet them, that more or less failed. And if the idea was just to win a little bit of moral authority back from antifa after the tragedy two weeks ago in Charlottesville, that really failed.
Obama gave millions of dollars to Antifa
Speaking of antifa, an extremely fake piece of news showed up this week claiming that former President Barack Obama had taken $7.1 million in sweet, sweet corporate speaking engagement money, and gave it to antifa. This comes from Our Land of the Free, one of those unfunny "satire" sites that only go viral when their content gets shared by people who believe it. "Our Land Of The Free is here to entertain you with the kind of whimsical satire conservatives enjoy," the site's disclaimer says.
This whimsical story about a former president was obviously fake. But here comes former child actor and present-day hoax-spreader Scott Baio:
"Where did [Obama] get that kind of money?" Baio tweeted. For good measure, he threw in the hashtag "#Soros," as in: "George Soros." The tweet has since been deleted.
On Thursday, Baio took his conspiracy tweeting a step further, posting a photo suggesting a conspiracy-land connection between the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the recent murder of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer. To be fair, Baio apologized, tweeting, "In retrospect, I wish I had thought longer about retweeting that conspiracy photo. I shouldn't have sent it. It was wrong."
Then he threw in the hashtag "#Baio."
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