Exciting? Sure. Staged? Maybe. What a grainy video’s murky origins tell us about fake news

It's great TV, but did this confrontation between a van driver and a cyclist happen in reality?. YOUTUBE

The first thing we have to say is that it was pretty good reality TV.

A female cyclist, somewhere in England, is harassed by some obnoxious guys in a van.


She chases them down, finds the van parked a few blocks away …

Exciting? Sure. Staged? Maybe. What a grainy video’s murky origins tell us about fake news - image

… wrenches the side mirror off and makes her escape.

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Exciting? Sure. Staged? Maybe. What a grainy video’s murky origins tell us about fake news - image

It’s exciting to watch, and morally satisfying in a jungle-justice kind of way. And, as the motorcycle rider who’s been filming the whole thing from his helmet cam says, they arguably had it coming. (Well, he was less even-handed.)

READ: Fake news: Not just for conservatives any more

Exciting? Sure. Staged? Maybe. What a grainy video’s murky origins tell us about fake news - image

You can see the video here; the version we’re linking to has over a million views.

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As you might have guessed, there’s no basis to believe it happened as presented.

British content provider Jungle Creations, where the video originally surfaced, later conceded they had no idea where it had come from and pulled it down. But by the time that happened, several mainstream British news outlets that apparently found it too good to check, had republished it. The Evening Standard ran an uncritical online story about the video, followed by a more carefully hedged version after doubts arose about its origins.

(The Sun, to its credit, sent a reporter who talked to a construction worker who said he’d seen a man coaching both the cyclist and the men in the van.)

READ: Expect more fake news from Russia, top NATO general says

“The pressure for clicks has pushed many news organizations to take an increasingly lax attitude to checking whether a great story is made up,” the Guardian’s Jasper Jackson argues.

(As dashboard cams and helmet cams become more common, confrontations between cyclists and drivers have become better-documented, if not more common. Thousands and thousands of the resulting videos have made their way to Youtube. So a video like this, like a lot of fake news, catches us with our guard a bit down, since there’s lots of similar real material out there. It doesn’t trigger our surprise instincts to any great extent.)

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This instance is fairly harmless, as these things go. However, it reminds us of this recent warning that making high-quality faked or staged video is going to become easier and easier and time goes on. Much of the fake news in circulation is of wretched quality and easy to spot if you’re even somewhat alert, and little of it involves any kind of video, but we shouldn’t count on that being true forever.

READ: Ontario minister Brad Duguid apologizes to media over ‘fake news’ comment

WATCH: President Donald Trump addressed the reports about his administration’s ties to Russia calling them “fake news” and defended former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in a very combative news conference.

In fake news news:

  • The New York Times looks at a new calling-out-fake-news site, in this case run by the Russian foreign ministry. “It was hard for some critics to take the ministry’s fake news detector seriously,” the Times wrote, given that just this week Russia’s defence ministry announced a unit devoted to information warfare. The site “doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of debunking,” as Buzzfeed says, just screenshotting a story with a red FAKE stamp, with the cut-and-paste text “This article puts forward information that does not correspond to reality.”
  • The Times also explains how fake news efforts linked to Russia may have helped defeat a referendum last year in the Netherlands on free trade with Ukraine, and examines East Stratcom, the EU’s attempt to keep up with a flood of fake news, a task it calls “overwhelming.” Staff members have had death threats, the Times reports, and one has been accused of espionage on Russian TV.
  • The Eskilstuna Kuriren, a daily paper in Eskilstuna, Sweden, published a long investigative story last week by a reporter who took a job in a “troll factory” in which people armed with a script call journalists or other public figures and try to get them to say something unguarded or compromising. They are paid based on whether the conversations get social media traction. There’s an English-language summary here, and Chrome will offer a rough but serviceable translation of the original.
  • Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, died suddenly this week in New York. His cause of death is not clearly understood, and tests by city medical examiners may take weeks. (Churkin is the second Russian diplomat to die recently in New York in mysterious circumstances; Sergei Krivov was found in the Russian consulate with fatal head injuries on U.S. Election Day, Nov. 8.) Churkin’s death was immediately tweeted by a botnet apparently under Russian control, says the Digital Forensics Lab, an arm of the Atlantic Council. The bots “were all vocal supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump,” the Digital Forensics Lab explains in this Medium post. “They had avatar pictures of attractive women in revealing outfits.” Many used avatar images taken from real people’s accounts.
  • The BBC looks at fake news in Germany, where it is causing alarm in the lead-up to elections there this fall. Reporter Amol Rajan floats a theory — established German media are responsible to a fault, but dull. “Germany’s conventional media market has created an opening for fake news, which of its very nature is salacious and exciting.”
  • Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman probes deeper into the murky relationship between marketing efforts for the “psychological horror thriller film” A Cure for Wellness, which opened last week, and fake news sites such as the Houston Leader. The controversy caught The Leader, a real weekly in Houston, in the blowback. Silverman also looks into who might be behind the five fake news sites that were part of the movie promotion. 
  • And as France heads toward first-round presidential elections in April, 17 French news organizations, drawn from a mix of old and new media, are collaborating to fact check online news.

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