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.
Sadly, the War on Fake News is not going well.
Back in December, Facebook declared that it would combat fake news by partnering with respected news organizations that would flag stories as false. But according to a Politico story from earlier this week, these outside lie spotters—including PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Associate Press, and ABC News—are frustrated by Facebook's lack of transparency, which they say makes it impossible to figure out whether all this fact-checking is accomplishing anything.
Thanks to the checkers, some hoax stories are flagged "disputed." Facebook says the label stops stories from spreading, but it won't provide any evidence to back up that claim. That seriously irks the fact checkers, whose literal job is to find evidence for claims. It also leaves them with many questions: Are they getting to fake news stories early enough to stop the bad information from spreading? Since their resources are limited, are they focused on debunking the right stories in the first place? Perhaps most importantly, do fake news consumers consider the "disputed" label—which comes from the lamestream media after all—a sign that a story is extra primo stuff, and read it with extra vigor? No one knows, because Facebook won't open its kimono and show anyone its data.
To make matters worse, this week we also learned that during the lead-up to the 2016 election, Facebook accepted political ad money from 470 troll accounts that appear to trace back to a company with ties to the Kremlin.
So while these frustrated fact checkers may still be at their battle stations, lately when we look on Facebook to see what's going on with all the terrible hurricanes, all of our feeds are still likely to be choked with crap. It was true last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and its true now, as the deadly Irma and the still-strengthening Jose close in on the US.
Here are the latest untruths blown in by the gale-force winds.
#IrmaLootCrew is a hashtag for real looters
When I wrote about Hurricane Harvey last week, one thing I touched on was the hashtag "#HarveyLootCrew"—a flavor of internet hoax originally conceived of by some shitposters at 4chan. The way it works is they post about their acts of true larceny (not survival theft), add photos of what looks like looting, and stick on the hashtag #XLootCrew, where "X" is whatever the current disaster is. The effect is that the casual internet user thinks antisocial thieves are running amok in the disaster area then bragging about it online. Occasionally, serious publications post about the tweets is if they prove the old canard that looting during disasters is a major problem.
I said the shitposters would do it again during the next hurricane, and they didn't even wait for US landfall to prove me right. There are already tons of "IrmaLootCrew" tweets, and nearly all of them look like they're from pro-Trump trolls.
It's all very dismaying, not just because of how obviously fake the photos are, (That tweet above is a photo of Floyd Mayweather) but because of how joyfully racist this whole hoax is. Twitter user "Gregory Montfort" posted about early tweets, directing people to follow the IrmaLootCrew hashtag and claiming that "Black & mestizo gangs in Florida are getting ready for #HurricaineIrma so they can loot stores & white people's houses." Ugh.
Hurricane Harvey revealed the truth of the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy
I've been posting one "satire" story from Our Land of the Free per week, because this site is now the reigning titan of internet bullshit. (Congrats to them.) The OLOTF modus operandi is to just write whatever news would attract the attention of conservatives—conspiracies and fantasies, mostly—and then slap a "this is satire" disclaimer on the bottom, where few will see it. Then the site infects Facebook with its bullshit, rakes in the clicks, foments a bunch of frothy conservative rage about the latest (fake) misdeed from Nancy Pelosi, Black Lives Matter, or Al Gore.
Having said that, this week's best OLOTF story is kinda funny.
The story, titled "Harvey Flooding Uncovers Secret Stash Of Ammo Hidden By Obama Administration," will be a little confusing if you don't already read conspiracy websites.
If you'll recall, back in 2015, the US military launched a series of secretive military drills called Jade Helm 15 that scared the shit out of conservatives. Jade Helm was, in reality, a series of war games on bases in several states, including Texas. The Jade Helm conspiracy was that the exercise was really part of a plot by Barack Obama to seize everyone's guns, declare martial law, and turn the US into the Gay Islamic Socialist Republic of America or something. Jade Helm 15 dovetailed with another viral conspiracy from 2012 about the government stockpiling ammunition in order to create an army of children.
So this fake story is bit of conspiracy nostalgia. Basically OLOTF is saying, "remember how we thought Obama was going to send thugs to kick down our doors and steal our guns? Well, thanks to the flooding Harvey, we now know it was true!" Naturally, some people passed around the story like it was true.
Hurricane Irma coverage is a ploy to infect people with liberal media lies
By now you've at least seen headlines about right-wing radio guy Rush Limbaugh's weird diatribe about Hurricane Irma. I don't quite think he called the hurricane a hoax outright—not exactly. But he still downplayed a very serious oncoming disaster, and put the blame on his standard scapegoat: The Liberal Media Conspiracy. Limbaugh then revealed that he didn't believe his own bullshit when got the fuck out of his own Florida home and headed for higher ground, which was a good and correct thing to do.
The initial diatribe, which Limbaugh later claimed was taken out of context, started out with the disclaimer, "I am not a climatologist or meteorologist," and then turned into a rant that sounded a lot like, and touched on, the standard conservative argument against climate change action:
I mean, these things, there's too many variables, atmospheric conditions, sea surface temperatures, and unknown. There's just no way to predict where these storms are gonna go until probably the day before.
For the next several minutes he droned about how maybe the storm wouldn't be as fatal as everyone thinks, and pointed out that, just FYI, the red part of a hurricane on a map represents temperature, not rainfall, and then got down to brass tacks: Coverage of these storms is a delivery method for sinister liberal ideas.
They create the fear and panic after they've already told everybody climate change is responsible for these bigger and more frequent storms... And the image is powerful, the picture, the graphic is powerful, and the fear that it might hit is all it needs. If it ends up not hitting where you are, hits somewhere else, you might temporarily breathe a sigh of relief, but you're still gonna think, "Man, there might be something to this climate change," which, do not doubt me, with everything being politicized, of course it is an objective of some, not everybody, of course, but some of the people involved here.
For the record, climate change does have an effect on hurricanes, though not the one El Rushbo is citing. So far, climate change only seems to have made them more severe, along with making intense rainfall more frequent, but it seems to be decreasing the sheer number of hurricanes. In his follow-up the next day about how he was being treated unfairly by the media, he split hairs again about how Florida was just in the "cone" of the forecast, and by implication, that everything might be OK.
As I write this on Friday night, the latest forecasts are saying the storm will most likely hit the western side of the Florida Peninsula with 145 mile-per-hour winds around 2 PM on Sunday. Maybe Limbaugh is right and those egghead meteorologists are wrong and it'll miss the state. Maybe all those scientists are wrong about climate change too. But Limbaugh apparently believes in science enough to evacuate—just not enough to start paying attention to climate change.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.