Here’s a roundup of things that didn’t happen this week, or at any other time:
An 85-year-old woman in Waco, Tex. had been kidnapping cats to make fur coats.
This one has been around for a few years, but got social media energy this week. As the story goes, it was reported that an 85-year-old woman in Waco, Tex. had been kidnapping neighbourhood cats — lots and lots of cats — to make fur coats.
In it’s own way, it’s a really good fake story that’s full of corroborative detail. The fake cat killer apparently started using other people’s cats because she got too fond of the ones she was raising, she used the skinned cat carcasses to lure further cat victims, and she was a retired fashion designer.
Also this twist, straight out of Alfred Hitchcock:
“The recent disappearance of domestic animals in the neighborhood started to arise suspicion from local residents when some people started to notice the old lady’s particular fur coats, some even recognizing their cats in the coat’s furs.”
Not everyone disapproved:
The number of cats and coats seems ambitious, though. Apparently she made over 20, with dozens of cats needed for each one. You’d think that any neighbourhood would quickly have run out of cats at that pace.
The story’s crowning glory, though, is a courtroom picture of an elderly woman in a jail uniform handcuffed in court as two men look gravely on. The picture is real enough, Snopes points out (hence the air of reality). But it’s of someone else — a 79-year-old Atlanta woman in court there on drug trafficking charges in 2013. The rest of the story is fiction.
Two reminders here: an authentic-looking image shouldn’t lower your suspicions (the image could be real enough, but of someone or somebody else) and that photo search services like Google reverse image search or TinEye can help you trace an image back to its original context.
1,000 rioting Islamic extremists set fire to Germany’s oldest church on New Year’s Eve.
There was a crowd in a civic square on New Year’s Eve in Dortmund, in western Germany. Some people were throwing fireworks, one started a small fire on some netting covering repairs to a historic church. It was easily put out. That’s pretty much it.
Breitbart, though, turned a very minor incident into something much bigger and darker:
“At New Year’s Eve celebrations in Dortmund a mob of more than 1,000 men chanted ‘Allahu Akhbar’, launched fireworks at police, and set fire to a historic church,” asserted the right-wing site, until recently run by Steve Bannon, now Donald Trump’s White House chief strategist.
In Germany, the Breitbart story caused both anger and uneasiness. The site plans to launch local editions in France and Germany, where elections are expected this year, and both countries could be in for a flood of inflammatory fake news.
(Also, numerous outlets pointed out, the church in question isn’t Germany’s oldest.)
In this week’s fake news news:
- Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven expressed alarm about potential Russian attempts to influence elections there in 2018. The comments came as a Swedish think tank reported that Russia was using fake news to try to influence Swedish public opinion. Alarm has been growing in Sweden about relations with Russia. The country’s foreign minister recently argued for bringing back conscription, which was abolished in 2010, and local officials were recently told to dust off Cold War-era plans under which they would be ready to carry on operations from underground bunkers.
- Does the term ‘fake news’ mean anything? It once did, but it’s become hopelessly muddled, argues former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. She says that the term has been applied to so many different kinds of things that it should just be abandoned: “putting them all in a blender and slapping on a fuzzy name doesn’t move us forward.”
- Quartz echoes Sullivan’s argument, more or less. Their take: Trump’s attacking a CNN reporter who was trying to ask him a question by shouting “You are fake news!” at him marks the term’s official death: “In truth, “fake news” had been weakened after months of attacks from howling Twitter eggs, enraged Facebook aunts, and internet commenters who use a Confederate flag for their avatar. President-elect Trump’s outburst, however, proved to be the fatal blow, rendering the term “fake news” hollow, absurd, and lifeless.”
- The New York Times reports on Sleeping Giants, a group that complains to mainstream companies whose ads appear on sites like Breitbart. The complaints are non confrontational, because the companies usually don’t know where their ads are being placed until the group tells them about it.
- In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny reflects on bulls**t, which she distinguishes from lies: “The liar wishes to conceal the truth. The bulls**t artist, by contrast, wants to destroy the entire concept of truth, not to deceive but to confuse, confound and control … A high-stakes liar might risk everything if he or she is found out, but the bulls**t artist simply moves on to the next sticky idea that floats through the howling moral vacuum behind their eyes. ” (Asterisks are ours.)
- And in the Times, Amanda Taub argues that the real root of fake news is extreme partisanship: “Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.”
WATCH: Donald Trump lashes out at media, calls CNN ‘fake news’