As the nation turned its eyes to Houston, a few people decided to spread some lies.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
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.
Which hoax about Hurricane Harvey did you believe? For me, it was the photoshopped picture of the shark on the freeway. The fake shark photo was apparently first posted in this context (though not originally created) by Scottish "journalist and blogger" Jason Michael, and while I'd like to claim that I believed it after considering the evidence— I'm sure it's tiny! I'm sure it's close to the beach! Beaches on the Gulf Coast are occasionally menaced by sharks, so it could happen!—but at the end of the day it was a big fat phony piece of bullshit, and I momentarily believed it.
Then I scrolled through the replies to Michael's tweet. Now that it's gong insanely viral, Michael himself has been tweeting links to the many articles that debunk the photo. He now claims that his tweet was an "experiment," saying, "When America is this easy to troll with #FakeNews we should all be worried."
Another user in the reply thread criticized Michael for polluting the Twitter stream at a time when there was important emergency-related tweeting to be done, to which Michael replied, "So twitter is part of the emergency response now Adam? Hold on while I go and bang my head against a wall" (Twitter was, and continues to be a valuable resource for flood victims). A user named Rakesh Agrawal criticized Michael more directly: "If you weren't an attention starved asshole, you would've deleted the tweet. Experiment, my ass."
But since viral hoaxes and lies are a permanent feature of life, Harvey generated a ton—though not all—of this week's fake news. Compared to a harmless fake photo of a shark, some of it was straight-up repugnant.
A Black Lives Matter Protest Undermined Rescue Efforts
Our Land of the Free, a site I've written about before, posted another piece of "whimsical satire" for conservatives, in which Black Lives Matter protesters are depicted in a giant crowd, blocking a group of police cars trying to get to flood victims in Houston. "This is just sick!" the ostensibly comedic article says. "Emergency crews are working hard to make sure that they can be there to rescue Hurricane Harvey victims, but lefist (sic) punks from the Black Lives Matter clique don't think people deserve to be saved."
It got shared on Facebook at least 50,000 times. That's because it's so side-splittingly hilarious, I guess? But I'm not sure. Posts about the article feature text like, "Just drive through them or over them if they do not get out of the way as the emergency crews are more important that the terrorist criminal racist BLM who no longer matter," and, "Black Lives Matter is not a rights activist group, but a prime example of domestic terrorism that needs to be dealt with," so to be honest, I'm not sure these folks get the joke!
Trump is threatening to sue Halo Top for naming an ice cream flavor "pee tape"
In other flood-related news, a fake CNN screenshot this week invited us to imagine what would happen if Halo Top, the company known for its low-calorie ice cream, named a flavor "Pee Tape." Trump, according to this fake version of CNN (not to be mistaken for "Fake News CNN"), wanted Halo Top to recall the flavor, or he would take legal action. "Pee tape," of course, refers to a completely unsubstantiated report from an intelligence dossier claiming that years ago Trump paid Russian sex workers to piss on a hotel bed that Barack Obama had slept on, and that the Russian intelligence services had filmed this. (This is now a Twitter meme.)
According to Inquisitr, this hoax blew up on Sunday when it was tweeted by Steve Marmel, some guy who tweets about how awful the president is every few minutes. In the now-deleted tweet, Marmel wrote, "Wait. Trump doesn't like this 'Pee Tape' themed ice cream? Seems like he'd really hate to see it retweeted. Is all I'm saying." According to Inquisitr, at least one other guy posted to Facebook about trying to go to the store and buy Halo Top's "Pee Tape" flavor, presumably because he wanted to taste the idea of a pee tape as interpreted by ice cream makers.
#HarveyLootCrew is a hashtag for real looters
Compared to Our Land of the Free, this is comic gold:
But even though the idea of someone breaking into a sex shop during a flood and fishing out hundreds of multicolored dildos almost makes me crack a smile, it spreads a false story, and more importantly, it perpetuates a mostly-false idea about looting during natural disasters, so unfortunately, I can't approve.
There's nothing to suggest that fun-loving looters are running amok, and then posting about it online, and using the hashtag "#harveylootcrew"—probably not at all, and definitely not in any significant volume. Even though Fox News is running a lot of looting stories, and even though conspiracy blog Zero Hedge claims that looting is a massive problem, the police chief of Houston has only reported some "small-scale looting." Online reports suggest that a small number of people may be going after valuables, but most theft in flood-affected areas this week seems to be relegated to grocery stores. That form of theft strikes me as less like "looting" and more like "staying alive."
All the way back in 2015, my colleague over at Motherboard, Jordan Pearson, debunked this spreading of looting-related rumors as the work of trolls, some of whom are tied to 4chan. At the time, the hashtag was "#BaltimoreLootCrew," tied to the street protests in response to the death of Freddie Gray, and it came after "#SandyLootCrew" a couple years prior. Influential people bought the Baltimore hoax, like Ian Tuttle of the National Review. "The danger with these kinds of tweets being taken seriously is that they serve as a perfect excuse for people essentially insulated from the effects of over-policing and police murder, either by virtue of their geographic location or ethnic heritage, to demonize protesters and rioters," Pearson wrote.
So using the #LootCrew family of hashtags is a fun game for trolls, and it belongs in the Lie Hall of Fame for its ability to influence public opinion. It's obviously not going away, so expect people to use it again after the inevitable next big storm.
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