The Ten Most Toxic Pieces of Fake News in 2017
A roundup of the year's ugliest, most damaging lies.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Welcome back to a special year-end edition of Can't Handle the Truth, our column looking at the fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
What was the biggest fake news story of 2017?
If you asked me this loaded question in a sufficiently consequence-free environment, after filling me with enough hard liquor, I might fire back with one of the obviously false narratives that has polluted our discourse: the idea that Russian president Vladimir Putin secretly controls Donald Trump, or that Robert Mueller's methodical investigation will save America from Trumpism or that billionaire political donor George Soros is an illuminati Pizzagate wizard who loves to rape children and controls the media and the Democratic Party with his Jew gold. Too many zealots on either side of the spectrum believe a version of one of these, and it'd be great to see Americans move on from screaming them at one another.
But sadly, even if I were armed with the combined fact-checking power of Snopes, Politifact, 10 billion Washington Post Pinocchios, and a pair of magical They Live Ray-Bans, I still don't think I could somehow shake the country into some moment of factual clarity.
That's because "fake news" is not the disease. Whatever's eating the United States alive, it's something much more insidious than lies, and I'm certainly not the sociopolitical Dr. House that's going to figure out how to diagnose and cure it. I am, however, something of an expert on the symptoms. So without further ado, here's a countdown of the ten hoaxes that caused or revealed the greatest amount of ugliness in 2017.
10. Melania Trump has a body double
In October, a cynical, social media-loving "cannapreneur" named Joe Vargas struck internet gold by theorizing on Twitter that First Lady Melania Trump had been replaced—temporarily or otherwise—by, um, someone. An actor? A robot? A shapeshifting alien? Draw your own idiotic conclusion.
It's not clear at all that Vargas actually believed the hoax he had created, but he defended it to the bitter end. This, to me, exemplified one thing that makes political fake news both annoying and pervasive in the Trump era: Oftentimes it's just spam, created for reasons of pure, apolitical profit-seeking (or old-fashioned lulz), not because of ideology.
But inevitably, gullible people buy into it, spreading more confusion throughout the world, and regardless of motive, filling an already lie-filled landscape with more lies is a fucked-up way to make a living.
9. Hurricane Harvey brought a shark ashore in Houston
On August 27, with Hurricane Harvey dropping more water on the Houston area than a single rain event has ever dropped in the US, some Scottish guy named Jason Michael posted a photoshopped tweet about a shark swimming over the flooded freeways of Houston. Garden variety internet horseshit, right?
Mostly yes, but it came with one extra, ugly wrinkle: Twitter is a useful tool for rapidly spreading information during emergencies, and the fake shark post was gumming up the works a bit. When someone brought this to the attention of Michael, he was dismissive. "So twitter is part of the emergency response now Adam? Hold on while I go and bang my head against a wall," Michael tweeted. As of this writing, Michael's original hoax had earned 87,494 retweets.
8. The DNC murdered Seth Rich
At this point, the less is said about Seth Rich the better. Rich was a DNC staffer whose life was cut short by an attacker last year on a sidewalk near his Washington, DC, home. Back in May, the right-wing media, including most notably FOX News host Sean Hannity, worked itself into a frenzy trying to sell America on a far-reaching conspiracy theory. Let me sum it up: Democratic Party operatives supposedly had Rich killed for leaking the DNC emails. It was a narrative that exculpated Trump of any Russian shenanigans and vilified Hillary Clinton's team, making it a tidy, if nonsensical, narrative.
Still, the rumor ballooned out of control for a few days. Rich's family publicly begged for the conspiracy theorists to cut it out. Hannity didn't stop for a while, then finally relented. But the whole affair was incredibly ugly.
7. Kid Rock Is Running for Senate
Kid Rock was never running for Senate. In fact, Kid Rock thinks you're pretty dumb for ever believing he might be running for Senate. It was always completely transparent that this was just a marketing stunt for his tour and album, right?
No. There were two lies here. 1) Kid Rock created a dumb hoax for marketing purposes. 2) When the initial story seemed fake, he fully denied that it was a hoax, and claimed that reports about it being a hoax were "fake news." Talking shit is fine—wonderful even—but the unspoken rule of good-time jokin' around for fun and profit is this: When the jig is up, you admit it. Hoaxes can be a legitimate (if lame) form of marketing, but pointing at your hoax and saying "this is not a hoax" is the bad kind of lying.
6. Global warming has stopped
This year, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, a deliberate middle finger to the international community, sure to please people who love Trump's "America First" doctrine (fuzzy though it may be in its specifics). It was also a colossally boneheaded thing to do to the planet, and it was based on years of bad intel.
One of the many hoaxes that could have led Trump to his pullout plan was the idea that global warming has recently stopped. This idea of some kind of plateau goes all the way back to 2012 (and possibly further), and has appeared all over the right-wing media, only to be proven extremely wrong time and time again. This year's version (from the climate skeptic blog Watts Up with That) was extremely weak tea, and was also almost instantly debunked by the scientist whose research was being quoted in the initial story.
In terms of impact on the world, climate change denial in general continues to be an extremely destructive hoax that imperils the world.
5. Antifa is plotting to overthrow the government
As you're no doubt aware, the silliest parts of the American right worked themselves into a fury this fall after they wrongly came under the impression that some kind of leftist coup was coming on November 4—specifically that an organization called "antifa" was plotting a violent uprising that would target whites.
Once more with feeling: Antifa is a loosely defined group that includes organized anti-fascist groups like Refuse Facism and a bunch of angry, anonymous people who show up at protests sometimes. It's not a political party. It's certainly not a collection of armed super soldiers looking to replace white Christians with Comrade Obama's Gay-Muslim Coalition. (Which, to be completely clear, is a group I just made up, OK YouTubers?)
4. Roy Moore was set up
Despite having multiple women from his past accuse him of dating them when they were teenagers and in some cases assaulting them, Roy Moore almost won his Senate race in Alabama. One of many reasons for this was that his supporters took great pains to spread lies that ostensibly vindicated him, mostly by giving the impression that his accusers had all fabricated their stories, and that the Washington Post, that outlet that broke the news of the first accusations, was simply publishing falsehoods.
Here's a list of lies. It's probably not comprehensive:
- Gateway Pundit, a massively popular (and extremely full of shit) right-wing blog wrote about a tweet claiming that the Post supposedly paid women $1,000 to lie about Moore. The headline of their story called the tweet a "report."
- A janky fake news site published a total hoax about a Moore accuser being arrested for lying.
- An unknown party produced a robocall that went out to Alabama voters giving the apparently fake (and apparently Jewish) name "Bernie Bernstein," and falsely claiming to be a Post reporter seeking damning stories about Moore that would supposedly be published without verification.
- When it emerged that one of Moore's accusers had added text to a yearbook note by Moore, FOX News falsely reported that the yearbook evidence was a forgery.
- After Moore lost the election, a fake news site posted a racist story about black people committing voter fraud. Fraud rumors led to at least one legal complaint, which was thrown out.
Moore lost fair and square. Sorry.
3. Health insurance is cheap and works like a 401(k)
Throughout 2017, the president apparently believed that health insurance costs $1 per month, and pays out by transforming into better coverage over time, kinda like a retirement fund. You might think that sounds crazy, because Trump spent much of 2017 trying to convince Congress to draft healthcare legislation, but he really, really did believe exactly that. He said so in May, and then said more or less the same thing to the New York Times in July:
You're 21 years old, you start working and you're paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you're 70, you get a nice plan. Here's something where you walk up and say, 'I want my insurance.' It's a very tough deal, but it is something that we're doing a good job of.
I have no idea where this came from, but the president believed it—and might still believe it—and while this notion lived inside his ruddy head, he was overseeing healthcare policy. It didn't get a lot of publicity, but it is potentially very, very important.
2. The 2016 election was rigged
According to a YouGov poll from May, 52 percent of Democrats think Russian actors tampered with vote tallies in the 2016 election in order to get Donald Trump elected. A Politico and Morning Consult survey from back in February said that among registered voters, 25 percent believe that millions of people committed some kind of fraud at the polls.
Knock it off, everyone. Voter fraud is super rare.
1. Sergeant La David Johnson was a defector
In all of 2017, no lie managed to disgust me quite as much as this one.
In October, four US troops on patrol in Niger (the fact that there are US troops in Niger surprised many Americans) were ambushed by ISIS-affiliated militants, and four were killed. We now know that one, Sergeant La David Johnson, had fled from the fusillade to seek cover in nearby woods when he was shot 18 times. Back in October, when the fog of war was still thick, there was a moment where only three had been confirmed dead, and Johnson's body was recovered from the woods much later.
Just days after Johnson's body was recovered, the publisher of Freedumjunkshun—a blog associated with a notorious fake news guy named Christopher Blair who publishes unfunny "satire" targeted at low-information Trump supporters on Facebook—ran an article with the overtly racist headline "BREAKING: Black Soldier Killed In Niger Was A Deserter." It accuses Johnson of "trying to pull a Bergdahl," and says, "Mr. Johnson wasn't the perfect soldier that his mother wants us to believe." It's gross.
According to Snopes, the Department of Defense flatly contradicted the hoax, saying, "At no point since the Niger attack has DOD ever considered Sgt. La David Johnson anything less than an honorable soldier who sacrificed his life for our country."
The publisher of the post apparently felt bad after being shredded by the fake news blogosphere, and apologized on Facebook shortly after. Specifically, he felt bad about naming one specific dead soldier from real life instead of making one up. The lesson apparently was that when telling a fake story to pander to racists, it's bad to tarnish the legacy of a real fallen soldier.
Another takeaway could be that there's already way too much "satire" in the world, and that a lot of satire looks a lot like lies these days, so unless you have some important, Swiftian work to do, maybe keep your bullshit to yourself.
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