July 29, 2017 9:00 am

Earth won’t be cast into weeks of darkness in November, or at any other time

Fake news sites have been predicting coming 15-day periods of darkness for a while now.

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It has more than a few echoes of the old ‘End of the World‘ sketch from Beyond the Fringe (a predecessor of Monty Python) in which scowling members of a cult wait on a mountain for the prophesied end of the world. When the hour appointed comes and goes, the cult leader concedes that “it’s not quite the conflagration we’d been banking on.”

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“Nevermind, lads,” he tells his followers. “Same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day!”

Reports on a variety of dubious sites that claim that NASA has confirmed that the world will be cast into darkness between November 15 and November 30 due to an “astronomical event between Jupiter and Venus” are in much the same tradition.

The curious can move on to the scientific explanation, such as it is:

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“During this specific period, Jupiter and Venus will come in close proximity of each other and will be separated by just one degree. Venus will move to the southwest of Jupiter and as a result, it will shine 10 times brighter than Jupiter. Venus’ bright light will heat up the gases in Jupiter causing a reaction which will release an absurdly high amount of hydrogen into space.”

You can read on, if you like — the prediction goes on to involve an increase in the temperature of the sun which will cause it to turn blue.

The story quotes a NASA official named Charles Bolden, who (as Politifact points out) actually does exist, but resigned on the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration. His name is being recycled because the story itself has been recycled several times since 2015.

The predicted periods of darkness range from six to 15 days, are explained with sketchy but dramatic astronomy that seems to owe a bit more to Nostradamus and the Book of Revelation than to science class, and so far have consistently failed to actually take place.

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In fake news news:

  • We’ve had repeated warnings that fake video is getting better and better, and that we should get warier and warier about it. A recent project from the University of Washington demonstrates the point, laying the audio of one of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s speeches over the video of another fairly convincingly. “This is the future of fake news,” the Guardian observes. “We’ve long been told not to believe everything we read, but soon we’ll have to question everything we see and hear as well.”
  • The Johannesberg-based Mail and Guardian interviews ‘Ernest,’ not his real name, a freelance reporter in Zimbabwe who produces fake news and uses it to pay for real reporting. The fake news is far more successful, as far as traffic goes. “There aren’t that many people interested in politics,” ‘Ernest’ explains. “I can earn a few hundred dollars a month from my news site, it performs so badly. But stuff about gay baboons, stuff about pastors saying they went to heaven, that goes viral.” ‘Ernest’ says his wife has urged him to drop the real news and focus on the fake, since that’s what pays the bills, but he refuses. “Ernest says that in an ideal world, he would stop making fake news and concentrate only on his political reporting.”
  • Discover magazine published a successful sting this week, convincing four scientific journals to publish an article on ‘midi-chlorians,’ organisms that don’t actually exist (they’re a plot point in Star Wars). The article was based on a butchered page from Wikipedia. “It’s just a reminder that at some “peer reviewed” journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all … This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review,” wrote ‘Neuroskeptic,’ a pseudonymous blogger on the site.
  • Poynter looks at Russia Today‘s fact-checking feature FakeCheck, finding that “it mixes dubious fact checks among the legitimate ones, leading to unproven or poorly sourced conclusions.”
  • Nearly three-quarters of Trump voters reject reports of a 2016 meeting between the campaign and a Russian lawyer with connections to that country’s security services as ‘fake news,’ despite the fact that Donald Trump, Jr. admitted it happened, Forbes reports.
  • Guerrilla marketing for Arcade Fire has fooled major newspapers, and falls awkwardly into the space between satire and fake news, Vice explains.
  • It’s become increasingly obvious that our electronic infrastructure, which controls everything from food distribution to banking, is vulnerable to attack. (Just ask the Ukrainians.) An unclassified wargame run at the U.S. Naval War College, with over 100 participants, simulated an ambitious attack earlier this month. One difficult national security decision with this kind of attack will be deciding how and whether to retaliate and on what scale, participants found.
  • Someone, it’s not clear who, is trying to sell data on 40 million U.S. voters on the dark web, darkreading.com reports. The twist is that the seller seems not to be interested in money so much as in trading information — he has address and birth date data from the voter rolls, and he wants to trade for credit card numbers and username/password combinations.
  • The theft, from a parked car in London, was real enough, and the thief was soon arrested due to video footage. He turned out to be Jake Nedd, 31, of no fixed address, and he’s now serving a 28-week jail sentence. However, he isn’t a Muslim immigrant, as many sites claimed. BuzzFeed explains.
  • Most of the most viral videos about German chancellor Angela Merkel are fake, Buzzfeed finds. Over a quarter of a million people have viewed a fake video in which Merkel tells Germans that they “have to accept foreigners’ violence,” for example. Germany holds elections in September.
  • A swarm of tweets this week in Poland accused anti-government demonstrators of being an ‘astroturf’ movement funded by George Soros. The irony, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab explains, is that the campaign was driven by over 2,000 bots. It is ” … typical of co-ordinated and artificial hashtag drives amplified by highly dedicated — and possibly automated — Twitter users attempting to make hashtags appear more popular than they actually are,” DFRlab says.
  • Fake news spread on WhatsApp is a factor in Kenya’s elections, Quartz reports. Fake news on ‘dark social‘ closed networks like Facebook and WhatsApp is far less transparent than on Twitter.

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