In 2015, readers of the Quebec site journaldemourreal.com, not to be confused with journaldemontreal.com, were alarmed or relieved, depending on how you choose to look at it, to learn that the great white shark in Lac-St.-Jean that had been secretly devouring tourists for years had at last been caught.
“The large white shark, estimated at more than three tons, would be the largest fish ever recovered in the region,” the story explained. (Well, you would think, yes.)
“The authorities suspect that more than one hundred missing persons in the area, mostly tourists, have fallen under the fangs of the gigantic beast, many of whom have suspected the presence for a long time.”
And a local campground operator could finally lay down his dark secret:
“‘I’ve seen people disappear under water, but I never said anything,’ said local campground operator Ghislain Tremblay.
Tremblay, it seemed, personally killed the monster, while on a fishing trip, with a Molotov cocktail he improvised from beer bottles and some gasoline:
“‘He roared a flame, and then he fell dead,’ he said, still visibly shocked.”
An oddly similar thing happened in Lake Michigan in June of this year, according to the dubious site notallowedto.com. Most of the details were the same, except that in the American version the shark was dispatched with a rifle.
The pictures of the bloody, toothy dead shark are identical in both stories. It’s not clear where it came from — Tineye seems to trace it back to a defunct stock photo site that the Wayback Machine last crawled in 2011.
“More than a hundred people reported missing in the area in the last decade may have fallen under the fangs of the gigantic beast,” notallowedto.com reported, using a phrase from the Google Translate version of journaldemourreal.com‘s story.
The American version claims 226,000 shares, though this cannot be independently verified.
On the whole, the Quebec version is a better literary effort — the campground operator’s terrible secret is a nice touch, and death by Molotov cocktail is more interesting and spectacular, though less believable, than something more boring involving a rifle.
Both sites may have been inspired by an elaborate 2014 hoax that purported to show a shark off Wolfe Island, at the east end of Lake Ontario.
In fake news news:
- Millions of people this week watched a Facebook video that purported to be a live stream of a spectacular storm. It was actually a loop of a five-second video of a storm in June of 2015.
- Journalism professor Jay Rosen looks at why attacks on the press are “a permanent feature of Trump’s political style.” It’s a depressing list of reasons: among them, “turning reporters into ritualized hate objects is easy to do, supporters love it, and it meets Trump’s need for public displays of dominance.”
- Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant has taken down a Facebook video in which she starred in a mock newscast called the “Gallant Nightly News,” in which she denounced more or less the entire Canadian media as purveying “fake news.” “The party leadership is believed to have played a role” in the video’s deletion,” Global’s Maham Abedi reported. The odd episode led to a discussion of whether unfounded accusations of ‘fake news,’ implying as they do that a news item has been fabricated on purpose, should be treated as unparliamentary language.
- Facebook released an update this week on its efforts to try to cut down on the fake news on its platform. One, which I’d noticed, is no longer letting ordinary users edit metadata on links — the potential existed to change the headline and abstract on a story in a mainstream publication and circulate the doctored version, for example. The Guardian, however, questions how successful Facebook has been — it’s questionable how effective automated or user-driven tools can be at curbing this kind of problem.
- The German government is putting pressure on Facebook to get better control of fake news in the lead up to elections in September, Politico Europe reports: “If fact-checking initiatives fail, the German government has demonstrated it is prepared to legislate to curb what it sees as the rise of false information spread by social media.” (At a certain point, state efforts like this are going to run into free speech rights, however.)
- Faked Time magazine covers hung in the White House raise larger questions about authentication, the Columbia Journalism Review reports. While a print publication can easily show that a fake was fabricated, it’s harder for digital-native content, especially as sites come and go: “… content that is “born digital” is at particular risk, especially when news organizations close their doors. The impermanence of digital content makes it difficult to assert (or refute) the legitimacy of an online article.”
- People aren’t very good at spotting doctored photos, a recent study shows. (Are you? Take this quiz at the Washington Post and find out.)
- In the aftermath of the death of imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo this week, Chinese authorities demonstrated a much more sophisticated system of digital censorship than observers had realized existed, a report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab says. It included censoring specific images in one-to-one chat in real time. “Censors were able to peer into private conversations on Chinese (messaging) services, and strip out any banned material as it moved from person to person,” the Register explains.
- At Misinfocon, Phillip Smith warns of a “tsunami of polluted information that is threatening the fabric of trust between users and what they experience online … The insidious thing about information pollution is that it uses the Internet’s strengths — like openness and decentralization — against it.” A medium-long read, worth your time.
- As the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia deepens, the Washington Post predicts that the White House will intensify attacks on the media in general, and on individual reporters in particular. “The goal is obvious: To produce an army of viewers and readers who are essentially programmed to dismiss any coverage of the Russia investigation that does not immediately exonerate Trump and all members of his campaign team … Whatever happens, it’s going to get very, very ugly.”
- Snopes has a deep dive into fabrications about Donald Trump, and what they say about public perceptions of the U.S. president’s different personas.