Fake news this week: The Queen isn’t dead, and Donald Trump didn’t threaten war with Mexico
Two fake news stories this week had some things in common – they were sort of broadly plausible, they would certainly have been news if they had happened, and they exploited weaknesses in Twitter.
Let’s have a look:
1. The Queen is dead.
Well, the Queen is 90, she hasn’t been well, a number of celebrities have died lately, and the fake news account that tweeted the news of her death (since suspended) had at least a quick-and-dirty similarity to the BBC News Twitter account (compare real with fake).
Like a lot of fake news sites that try to pass themselves off as real ones, @BBCNewsUKI doesn’t stand up to a lot of critical scrutiny – the account has about a thousand followers, while the real BBC’s world news Twitter feed has over 17 million. Also, the real feed has a steady stream of news, while the fake one doesn’t.
The tweet about the Queen’s death got past a lot of people’s filters, though, including Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States. “First time I am victim of fake news,” he wrote in a tweet captured by Buzzfeed and later deleted. “Now, I do understand the problem.”
But many spotted the fake for what it was:
2. Donald Trump threatened war with Mexico on Twitter.
Well, Trump has said intemperate things on Twitter, published spelling errors, has said he likes to be unpredictable, and has no love for Mexico. Also, people who say intemperate things on Twitter do often delete them.
“It appears Trump has quickly removed the tweet,” bignewsstories.com added in an ‘update’. “It lasted around 2 minutes before being pulled.”
The mechanics of the hoax are worth a careful look.
It’s really easy to fake a tweet from a real account by editing your browser’s local copy of a real tweet, which is what seems to have happened in this case. Once you screenshot the tweet you altered and claim that it’s since been deleted, you have all the elements of a plausible hoax.
Here’s what that process looks like:
And here’s the result. I got this to work in Chrome with about ten minutes of trial and error. Try it yourself: in Chrome, click on the three vertical dots at the upper right of the screen, then More tools/Developer tools, and search for the text you want to edit in the lower left of the screen.
I used my own Twitter account for ethical reasons, but it would work on anybody’s. Here I am, in an edited tweet, tweeting from Narnia several years in the future.
So you can’t automatically trust screenshots of tweets, no matter how genuine they look.
(The original is here.)
In fake news news:
The New York Times published two stories on fake news over the holidays that are worth your time:
- On December 23, Pakistani defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif posted a menacing Tweet in response to a fake news story that Israel had threatened Pakistan with a nuclear attack. “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too,” he tweeted. As the Times points out, the fake story in question was a very low-quality one, full of typos and basic factual errors. That Asif fell for it is disturbing on a number of levels, not just because of Pakistan’s perfectly genuine nuclear arsenal.
- Advertisers are part of the economics of fake news. But increasingly, online advertisers are questioning whether having ads on toxic sites peddling conspiracy theories are damaging their brands. You can see their point: below is a screenshot of a Sandy Hook conspiracy theory story on nowtheendbegins.com with an ad for a mainstream company in the lower right-hand corner:
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