How sketchy Twitter rumours led to reports of Prince Philip’s death

Reports of Prince Philip's death started on the murkier end of Twitter.

Journalists are competitive animals by nature. But at the end of the day nobody cares that much if you were first — but they care very much if you were wrong.

Wise news organizations work on the principle that they’d rather be right than first — it always wears better.

Early Thursday morning, the Daily Mail published an overexcited story headlined:  ‘Queen calls her ENTIRE household to ‘highly unusual’ emergency meeting at Buckingham Palace today — but aides say there is ‘no cause for concern’.

Now if it had just stayed there, things would have been fine.  The Mail‘s facts were fine, even if their presentation of them was breathless.

READ: Trump supporters accuse CNN of censorship after refusing to air ‘fake news’ ad

But then Royal Central, your source for all things royal, ran a story (since deleted, but you can read it here) claiming that ‘French media’ were reporting Philip’s death.

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We might stop at this point and ask: ‘Which French media?’ ‘Where?’ This would have been a helpful detail for Royal Central to include.

Twitter, starting Wednesday night (early Thursday morning in Britain), filled up with references to the ‘French media’ reporting Philip’s death, but no one linked to an actual media outlet in France reporting anything close to it.

Cooler heads pointed this out, but were ignored:

Some tweets linked to a since-deleted video on a Youtube channel called DAHB0077, which offers what it calls ‘underground world news’. The channel’s lead offering at the moment is a video claiming to be of a former Russian colonel who warns that Vladimir Putin is planting ‘sleeper nukes’ along the U.S. coastline, which in the event of war would be set off to cause a tsunami.

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The existence of the video, though, gave the rumour a hint of plausibility.

Common sense says: When you read, or hear, the phrase ‘unconfirmed reports,’ you should apply all possible filters.

At the London Sun, a night-shift online editor clicked Publish — on purpose or not — on Philip’s obituary:


It’s not clear whether the Sun published the obituary on purpose without reading it over carefully, or was looking it over in case it needed to be used and published it by accident. In any case, it was quickly rewritten and turned into a profile of Philip.

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(Many news organizations, including Global News, keep obituaries on file for well-known figures, minus a few details at the top that are filled in when needed. Hard experience, though, has shown that it’s good practice not to keep them in an online content management system, one hasty mouse click away from being published.)

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“We are mortified that this happened,” an unnamed Sun executive told the New York Times.

On Thursday morning, the British pound dropped sharply against the dollar on rumours of Philip’s death, recovering when it became clear that he is alive.

READ: Prince Philip to step down from public engagements

What do we take from this? Once again, this breaking news checklist shows its wisdom. Most of the things on it apply in this case:

2. Don’t trust anonymous sources.
3. Don’t trust stories that cite another news outlet as the source of the information.
5. Pay attention to the language the media uses.
8. Big news brings out the fakers. And Photoshoppers.
7. Compare multiple sources.

And, last but by no means least:

9. Beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.

READ: Fake news: Trump, Infowars part ways on Syria gas attack

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In fake news news:

  • Buzzfeed editor Ryan Broderick untangles 4chan users’ campaign to seed Google and with a rumour that centrist French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a bank account in the Cayman Islands. Macron is in a runoff election against Marine Le Pen, the right-wing National Front candidate funded by Russian banks.
  • Wired looks at the conspiracy theories targeting the White Helmets, a Syrian group that act as first responders:”Various White Helmet “truthers”—who range from Assad and his supporters to Russian embassies, and even to Alex Jones—accuse the group of staging rescue photos, belonging to al Qaeda, and being pawns of liberal bogeyman George Soros.”
  • In Buzzfeed, Charlie Warzel profiles Infowars’ Alex Jones, asking where his style of bug-eyed rage goes now, with ally Donald Trump in the White House. “Former Infowars employees suggested that Jones’ secret fear was that his opposition would someday run out — especially if Obama lost re-election. One recalled Jones pacing back and forth on Election Day in 2012, nervous over the prospect of losing the polarizing president that had helped usher in ratings gold.”
  • NeimanLab talks to Storyful’s CEO, who argues that a systematic blacklist of fake news sites, shared with ad agencies, has potential for getting the problem under control.
  • At Buzzfeed, Craig Silverman dissects how a Facebook-based fake news operator is organized. One started hundreds of fake accounts, all of which liked stories to make them seem popular, and joined groups to make the groups seem legitimate.
  • A panel this week at Columbia University in New York discussed free speech in a digital age. One participant explained censorship strategies that don’t involve traditional repression: ” … She also warned of new censorship techniques, in use now in China, which drown out anti-government speech rather than the traditional method of silencing. Teams of social media users linked to government agents pump out celebrity controversies … at the same time other users are trying to raise the profile of the Tiananmen Square massacre.”
  • In the Guardian: one of the saddest and most enraging real-world consequences of fake news was the persecution of parents whose children were murdered in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 by people who have let themselves be convinced that the killings were faked. One father, who files copyright claims against “truthers” who use his son’s image, moves frequently “because he has to keep ahead of the people who, for the past five years, have been sending him death threats.”
  • Russian propaganda aimed at Finland is increasing, Reuters reports. It seems to be aimed at getting the country, which at one time was ruled by Russia, out of the EU and keep it out of NATO.

READ: Fake news: How ads for mainstream brands end up in the Web’s dark corners


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