Fake sharks, fake alligators, fake looters: fakery abounded in Harvey’s wake

This isn't an image of a flooded airport in Houston.

It’s a sad reality that when there’s fear and confusion due to a terrorist attack, a flood, a hurricane or any other kind of sudden misfortune, there are lots of people willing to enthusiastically lie about it. Sometimes, it’s relatively harmless, and sometimes potentially not.

There’s such a swarm of Harvey-related fake news that we have to break it down into categories:


This is a straightforward fake involving a repurposed image. (In passing, we see the transgressor-is-humiliated meme that appears over and over in fake news):

Snopes has more detail. “This is a recycled version of a story that has cropped up on a regular basis since at least 2015, generally implicating Black Lives Matter or anti-Trump protesters in the death of an innocent person,” the site points out.

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Snopes also calls out a Facebook meme that claimed a tiny minority of Houston churches (60 of 1,566) were helping hurricane victims. This is the kind of fake story that is shaken by a few common-sense questions, as Snopes points out: Who, in the middle of a complicated disaster, would be able to survey 1,566 churches and come up with an accurate statistic? (As well, local churches and their congregations aren’t somehow exempt from flooding.)

This one should never have gotten any traction (remember “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job“?) but apparently, it did. Whatever Donald Trump’s errors or omissions over Harvey, the argument went, they’re balanced out by former president Barack Obama’s during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The problem: Obama was a future president at the time. This very lame effort resulted in what much has been Snopes’ easiest fact check ever: “Was Barack Obama President During Hurricane Katrina?”

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News of the weird

As the Washington Post points out, this shark wasn’t swimming down a highway in Houston, and the same shark wasn’t swimming down a highway in the several hurricanes before that, either.

And this alligator, though real, was somewhere else:

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(Couric was initially taken in, but has to be credited for leaving the tweet up for transparency’s sake and correcting it in a later one.)

WATCH: President Trump is back in Washington after a whirlwind trip to Texas and Louisiana where Harvey caused major flooding

Click to play video: 'President Trump departs Hurricane Harvey disaster zone, but problems remain' President Trump departs Hurricane Harvey disaster zone, but problems remain
President Trump departs Hurricane Harvey disaster zone, but problems remain – Sep 3, 2017

And Houston’s airports, though flooded, didn’t look like the image below.


That’s a simulation of what New York’s La Guardia airport might look like at high tide with 25 feet of sea level rise, though it’s not clear why the planes would have been left to submerge.

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A special place in hell should be reserved for people who spread faked, false information from civil authorities during a disaster. This week saw examples claiming that re-entry to Corpus Christi was banned, that Houston had turned off water supplies, and a widely circulated meme giving out an emergency number for the U.S. Coast Guard that actually reached an insurance company.

In the first two cases, real people may make real decisions based on fake information, and the third might have diverted calls in life-and-death emergencies.

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Are looters preying on abandoned Texas cities? To some degree, which shouldn’t be surprising.

However, dubious social media reports of looting far outpace the number of real incidents. Fake online bragging by fake looters goes back at least as far as Hurricane Sandy, Motherboard points out.

(h/t to: the Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Snopes)

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In fake news news:

  • Vice delves into the elaborate online world where extreme right and extreme left wage virtual battle with a range of weapons once available only to states. “Old intelligence practices and spy vs. spy tools are evolving and being adapted. There are dossiers and black lists, agents and double agents, “good trolls” spying on Trump supporters and fake antifa accounts, disinformation and counter-intelligence campaigns carried out on message boards and chat rooms like Discord and sometimes in full view on social media.” Fabrication is one tool among many.
  • Time looks at the bots and hackers that are trying to play a role in Germany’s elections, scheduled for Sept. 24. Unlike other Western countries, Germany has tried to tackle fake news through legislation aimed at social media platforms like Facebook; it remains to be seen if that’s the right tool, or if there is a right tool.
  • The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was targeted by a large-scale bot attack earlier this week. “These incidents took the bots to a level of harassment and intimidation we have not seen trained on @DFRLab before. However, they also allowed us to conclude that the initial botnet involved was either run by, or commissioned by, pro-Russian individuals.” The attack involved mock accounts purporting to belong to senior figures at @DFRLab, Bots retweeting reports thousands of times over that one of them had died, gave them an air of authenticity. Another had bot accounts endlessly retweet DFR tweets, making it impossible to keep track of which ones were real, “the social media version of a Distributed Denial of Service cyber-attack.”
  • A few days before, DFR had documented a bot attack on ProPublica, a non-profit news site that had been investigating Russian and U.S. far right social media related to the Charlottesville riots. The bots, DFR showed, were dormant Russian-language ones that had suddenly been revived as English-language accounts claiming to be in Britain.
  • ProPublica notices another detail of the first attack: a now-deleted account with 76 followers whose tweet attacking them got over 23,000 retweets.
  • Checking to see if viral images are fake — or more commonly, repurposed from another time and place — is necessary, but the process is a bit fiddly. Chrome has simplified it to one click, BuzzFeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko points out. Here’s how it works. Try it (in Chrome) on this image.
  • Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall breaks down the many parts of his publication’s dependence on, and vulnerability to, Google. In an effort to weed out hate sites, Google has flagged several TPM stories about white supremacists, taking ads off those article pages. “I’d say it’s unlikely that loss to TPM amounted to even a cent a month. Totally meaningless. But here’s the catch. The way these warnings work and the way these particular warnings were worded, you get penalized enough times and then you’re blacklisted.” In other words, there’s a real risk of TPM’s ad revenue being cut off because an algorithm misunderstood the site.
  • Bloomberg looks at a recent study of how successful fake news stories spread on Facebook. “Thanks to the wealth of information available on social media and the advent of targeted advertising, they … go straight for the most susceptible and valuable victims — those most likely to spread the infection … The most important catalyst of fake news was the precision with which the purveyor targeted an audience — a task that can easily be accomplished using the data that tech companies routinely gather and sell to advertisers.” The authors are pessimistic about seeing a fix anytime soon.
  • The New Yorker explains how the early days of radio parallel modern concerns about digital fake news. (The ‘War of the Worlds,’ a 1938 science-fiction account of an invasion of Earth by space aliens, was probably the most successful fake news story ever conceived.)
  • And Buzzfeed introduces us to the until-now-unsuspected world of faked hurricane prediction maps, which now concern the (real) U.S. National Weather Service.

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