The Butterfly Effect of (Bad) News
After yesterday's Webworm, the Herald removed the urban myth masquerading as news. But they refuse to comment - and the bullshit goes even deeper.
Yesterday’s newsletter examined how an urban myth (about a child identifying as a cat) had spread throughout the media.
The media in America, the media in Australia, and now the media in New Zealand. It highlighted the problems involved in aggregated news — as the news we’re fed becomes increasingly deranged.
As the weekend hits, I had a few updates that I think are telling.
Firstly — after I published that newsletter — the Herald quietly removed the story.
I think it’s safe to assume that if I hadn’t mentioned it, the urban myth would have remained at the Herald, masquerading as real news.
I reached out to the GM of communications at NZME (who owns the Herald) with a list of fairly simple questions:
I am writing a followup to today’s Webworm piece on the urban myth printed as news on the Herald:
I would like to seek comment from The Herald (ideally Shane Curry) about this. These are my questions:
1) I understand the Herald has removed the urban myth about a student identifying as a cat. Is this correct? And if so, why was it removed?
2) What are the Herald's policies about checking the validity of the news they run, specifically news from other news sites like News.com.au?
3) How can Herald readers trust the news they are reading is correct?
4) Are you noticing an increase in agenda-driven content (including transphobic pieces like the cat fiction) being passed off as news?
5) Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thanks, my deadline is 8pm today please.
They replied with this:
They never got back to me prior to my deadline… which passed 15 hours ago now.
Of course, despite one outlet removing the story, the bullshit remains. Of course it does. The horse has bolted, and there’s no getting it back.
Remember: there is no child identifying as a cat. And yet, over on news.com.au… this:
Delightfully filed under “Lifestyle — Parenting — School Life” (in order to panic as many parents as possible) this story involved an Australian senator’s stupid reaction to the fake news.
Of course comment from a senator further solidified the idea the original news story was real:
A United Australia Party senator has slammed reports of a Year 8 Melbourne girl who identifies as a cat, saying it was a symptom of the “unchecked” woke radical left.
Victorian senator Ralph Babet took aim after the Herald Sun reported that a Melbourne private school was supporting a “phenomenally bright” non-verbal student in identifying as a cat.
“No one seems to have a protocol for students identifying as animals, but the approach has been that if it doesn’t disrupt the school, everyone is being supportive,” a source close to the family is quoted as telling the paper.
But the story about the child identifying cat was so stupid I missed another key element of bullshit in the reporting — this line:
“The above incidents come as some Gen Z teens have adopted the furries subculture, in which people anthropomorphise animals, and begin to give them human characteristics.”
Furries had entered the debate: Specifically, that a bunch of school kids were now apparently furries.
I won’t go in depth into furries here — Wikipedia can explain — but essentially they’re people who are interested in anthropomorphic animal characters. They might enjoy Disney cartoons, they might collect plushies, they might enjoy creating art out of it all, or they might dress up in an animal costume, much like a mascot.
Furries are real.
But the story a bunch of school kids are now furries…. not so much. Yes, the media had dropped another urban myth in this story which was already an urban myth.
I’m friends with a furry who goes by “Patches”. He runs Dogpatch Press — basically a news website dedicated to news from the furry community. He’s also a Webworm reader, and responded to my last story with this:
“So, I traced the origin of the hoax from inside the furry subculture... all the way back to 2008 in mainstream US media.
It probably dated back to jokes on 1990’s furry Usenet, but that's too fuzzy to trace.
It was latent for a long time but rose up again in 2021 with the huge anti-trans propaganda push. I commented about it before it hit the mainstream, even got thanked by a teacher who’d been targeted in rightwing blogs.
My tracing of the hoax was then quoted in mainstream debunking after senators repeated the hoax.
The New York Times even reported to debunk it, which was a big deal.
I then shared a map of where the hoax popped up, almost all in the US. I worked to reach out to various places and saw it being mostly tamped down.
Australia was the exception.
It jumped across to Australia in a very fake opinion column by a shitty writer who sourced it to gossip at a dinner party. Funnily enough her official account was suspended by Twitter... I wonder why.
Other journalists made fun of it.
I hoped that would be the end of it... but months later the same news source ran what looked like a positive feature on furries.
Nope: A new round of it just hit a bunch of Australian outlets, laundering the same bullshit opinion article as if it was a real source.
I was too tired of the bullshit to even respond. It’s good you did!
Basically — it’s Inception levels of layered bullshit.
Not content with just throwing in lies about kids wanting to be real cats, they also had to throw in the lie that kids wanted to be fake cats as well.
And again — this isn’t some amusing, harmless fake story. It’s an implicit, charged attack on trans people and gender identity; intended to seed panicky falsehoods with the masses.
Webworm reader Jen experienced this firsthand:
I can confirm that the “kids identifying as cats” nonsense has reached the ears of my aunt and uncle, who swear that it’s true. As much as I love them, my aunt refers to transgender people with outdated slurs, taking away their humanity. As someone who’s coming to terms with her sexuality (after years of internal homophobia), it’s heartbreaking to hear and read these fake “stories.”
And giant media outlets are happy to share the bullshit, only removing it when pressed (the damage already done; no retraction; no acknowledgement) and certainly not responding to questions about how they’ll stop the same thing happening in the future.
Clicks are king, and it’s just such a huge letdown for both readers, and the few skilled journalists that do exist at these places.
Its so frustrating that it seems to both add ammo to the conspiricist thinking of "you can't trust main stream media" while at the same time allowing batshit conservative agendas with the sort of dross they are hoping to spread. It's exhausting keeping up and almost impossible to argue for sanity or common sense anymore!
from a trans perspective... seeing this kind of inflammatory news make headlines over & over again inspires the most overwhelming hopeless sense of despair, it's hard to even describe. i have to just sit there and watch it happen, knowing none of it is true, watching people i love start to embrace it, knowing i can do nothing to stop it. the truth is nobody (especially not conservatives) wants to listen to trans people on trans issues.
a while back in australia, newscorp ran a story about trans people demanding we stop using 'mum' and 'dad' in schools and abolish all gendered terms. i found out about the story from a facebook feed of a gay friend of mine. he had always been a nice person and i politely commented to let him know the story was false and warn him about falling for clickbait - especially as a gay man spreading misinfo about his trans siblings! next thing i know, he's accusing me of calling him a transphobe and directing his facebook friends to dogpile on me in comments. he was in my DMs saying terrible vicious things about how i was a Bad Trans accusing gay people of transphobia for no reason. i told him i hadnt thought he was a transphobe then but i certainly did now. it reminded me of how people are more afraid of being called a racist than they are of /being/ racist and how outrage over being perceived racist shuts down any sort of conversation you could otherwise have with them. of course, all these feelings and experiences are tenfold for our non-white siblings.
the worst part was that it occurred within weeks of the judge of a prolonged case describing the 'manslaughter' of a trans woman as a crime "on the lower end of serious" and illegally attempting to give the killer a community service order instead of jailtime. (he had killed her during sex and so it was ruled an accident - the court did not take into account the graphic threatening texts he had sent her, her family, & her friends beforehand). the story got almost no coverage at all apart from the ABC. no outpouring of outrage from allies there. there's never any huge noise online about injustice towards trans people from cis allies. it was an event that permanently altered & further radicalised me.
ugh. it's a lot. having to watch it happen over and over again. with outrage over trans women in sports. with outrage over trans people pissing in the bathroom. with outrage about mythical surgeries happening to children (while people stay silent on the actual "sex-correcting" surgeries that happen to intersex children and babies). my heart breaks for younger trans people hearing adults on tv call them "mutilated" - i heard similar things just from my parents growing up and it permanently impacted me. supportive people outside my house were all that got me through. i just hope trans kids in similar households seeing this shit on tv will be ok. people are drinking the transphobia kool-aid all over the world in the past few years and it's hard not to feel empty. as a baby journalist, it's hard knowing any sort of good coverage about trans people i could put into the world will likely be passed over and remain unshared. but, we have to keep making it. it all counts.
and at the same time, i was heartened when the most recent australian elections saw a woman stand up and publicly out herself as a TERF in an attempt to gain the liberal party favour, only to be absolutely smashed in the polls as part of australia's most progressive election result in a long time. TERFism hasn't really caught on here in huge amounts (yet). that keeps me going.
and thank you for writing things like this. the truth is, people on the fence are far more likely to listen to you as a cis man than me. it sucks (no offence <3) but it's what we have to work with.
ok. long time reader first time commenter! sorry for the word vomit, i hope at least some of it makes sense.