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The Art of Laundering (Fake) News
Why a lot of the news you're reading on legitimate news sites is definitely not real.
When it comes to the quality of the news we’re fed on a daily basis — the world is a bit of a shitshow right now.
The most rigorous journalism is usually behind a paywall, while the least scrupulous — but most clickable — stories remain out there for everyone on social media, like dog turds steaming in the open air of the internet.
This trend is still accelerating, and it’s probably not going to end all that well. We caught a glimpse of our potential dystopian news future earlier this week when Facebook’s news algorithm went haywire and started firehosing nonsensical celebrity interactions into people’s feeds across the planet.
Facebook news feeds went from typical regular, relatively solid stool — to an explosion of diarrhoea. My friend’s feed was just stuff like this:
“Anyare kay fb HELPPP” indeed.
“Anyare kay fb HELPPP” is actually something I often feel like screaming when reading many modern news sites, and I’m going to make a case study out of The New Zealand Herald — the country’s biggest newspaper run by the juggernaut NZME.
A Webworm reader stumbled on a Herald column this week about the latest conspiracy-ridden protest at parliament.
That was all fine and well, but down in the comments someone had posted a comment suggesting we needed these “freedom protests” because “enough is enough”.
To prove their point that society had gone down the drain, they pointed to a recent piece the Herald had also run — about children identifying as cats.
If you’re even slightly savvy you’ll know the cat article is an implicit attack of trans people and gender identity. It’s a fear-mongering, slippery slope argument that if we let people choose their gender, then pretty soon all our kids will be identifying as cats and shitting in the sandpit.
It’s the same type of argument that says that if we allow gay marriage we’ll end up letting people marry their dogs.
The thing is — the article on the Herald is 100% urban legend. The piece had done the rounds in Australian media already, weaponised as an attack on diverse identities.
Before Australia spread the myth in 2022, it was doing the rounds in America in 2021:
“On December 20th 2021 concerned parent Lisa Hansen addressed the meeting and told district administrators that she’d heard rumours that a school in the region had started installing kitty litter boxes in bathrooms due to the increasing number of students identifying as cats. Hansen said the litter box was located in a unisex bathroom.
Hansen claimed it was a “nefarious” practice and was part of a nationwide “agenda being pushed” within the US education system. The video of her claim was posted online by Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddock who called for ‘parent heroes to take back the schools.’
Within a few hours Michael E. Sharrow, the superintendent for Midland Public Schools, issued a statement that debunked the claims.”
That didn’t stop the story from spreading to at least five other schools across America last year — and being reported on various news sites accordingly:
“On March 12th the principal of Sky View High School which is located near the border of Idaho and Utah had to make a public statement confirming there was no truth to the rumour their school had installed kitty litter facilities for students.
“I’ve heard the rumor that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms and all this stuff. That is not true whatsoever, and I’ll be done with this job if we ever start putting litter boxes in restrooms,” Sky View Principal Mike Monson said on Monday. His comments were reported by the Idaho State Journal.”
In 2022 the lie jumped to the Australian press, where it was then syndicated by the Herald, and quoted back at them by readers trying to prove a nonsensical point.
It’s a problem we’re seeing more and more, as sites like the Herald aggregate their news from other websites. The more news, the more clicks. The more outrageous and baiting, the more ad revenue from those clicks.
It’s fake news — in the actual, literal, non-Trumpian sense — laundered from news site to news site, getting more outlandish and weird as it makes its way through the distended lower intestine of the click-hungry global media. The real news gets mixed in with the fake. The thing is, if you get a little bit of shit in the water you kinda wanna throw the whole glass out.
The Herald launders a lot of its news from news.com.au. That’s where the cat thing came from:
A great deal of news.com.au is horseshit, but the Herald doesn’t care about that, because it gets clicks.
It leads to false news, and it also leads to the sloppy publication of details we just don’t need.
Back when a terrorist in Christchurch murdered 51 people at two mosques, experts and police advised against sharing the horrific video. Afterall, that’s exactly what the terrorist wanted: Notoriety. He wanted it to be shared.
That didn’t stop websites like news.com.au from sharing it. As Twitter user @DailyIndgnation pointed out in 2019:
“News Corp-owned Daily Mail also showed it, as well as allowing readers to download the shooter’s manifesto. News Corp-owned news.com.au autoplayed it.
The New Zealand Herald, the country’s biggest newspaper, runs Daily Mail and news.com.au material daily, not always tagged.
The Herald also showed multiple frames from the video, including on their homepage, updating it throughout the day with more pics.”
Aggregation leads to bad, sloppy. decisions.
In that same year, the Herald decided to run another news story:
Thing is, much like the “child wants to be a cat story”, it was also false:
“In the initial absence of detailed information from medical officials or from Ms. Pothoven’s family, the internet was flooded with inaccurate reports that she had died via legal euthanasia, raising questions about how someone so young could be allowed to die voluntarily.
But the teenager did not die of euthanasia, according to her family, the Dutch health minister and the Royal Dutch Medical Association. She had stopped eating and drinking, her relatives said in a statement, and she was at home in the eastern Netherlands when she died, Dutch news outlets reported.”
It was breathlessly reported as “euthanasia” because euthanasia was the current battleground. More political, more controversial, more clicks.
Except the story was wrong.
The grind on newsrooms has been building. The issue of out-of-control news is raised in the new Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.
I was one of those who’d followed the media reports close to a decade ago, learning a bunch of things I now know are false. As CinemaBlend said this week:
“After Deadspin broke the news in 2013 that the Lennay Kekua story was a hoax, Manti Te’o unfortunately became a laughingstock to many people who didn’t understand how a person could be tricked in such a highly public way.
On top of that, he was reviled by others who thought he was privy to the scandal in an attempt to draw attention to himself and his football career.”
Te’o being privy to the scandal was reported en masse back in 2013 — and I assumed he was. I was wrong. Because my news was wrong.
In short — websites like the Herald in New Zealand and news.com.au in Australia and the Daily Mail in the UK traffic in dumb culture war fodder for clicks. Often they don’t check these stories, or seemingly apply any journalistic standards before hitting “publish”.
This means more than ever we’ve got to be savvy about what we’re reading, even if it’s on what sells itself as a legitimate news site. Unfortunately with less money, less staff, and the constant pressure to churn out new “news” for new clicks — I imagine this problem is here to stay.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to use the litter box and buy some Fancy Feast.
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And before I go — I wanted to note that the Arise story has hit giant Christian publication Christianity Today. This is a big deal, because this is a publication written for Christians, by Christians:
“This movement now directly reaches over 4.5 million Christian leaders every month. Christianity Today advocates for the church, shapes the evangelical conversation, brings important issues to the forefront, and provides practical solutions for church leaders.”
Written by David Crampton, the story paints Arise in a truly horrendous light.
In other words — accurately:
This is a big deal. John Cameron will no doubt aim to slink off to some other megachurch, or seed a new movement. With stories like this, he can’t hide.
And Arise can’t hide, either.
Arise is yet to release the independent review they commissioned, despite there being nothing blocking it since Webworm’s leak. Arise senior leadership or the board refuse to talk to Webworm anymore, missing the most recent deadline I gave them — again. The church continues to post happy-clappy images across their social media as if nothing is wrong.
Despite a few leaders saying half-hearted, meaningless apologies during services or in their Instagram stories — they appear to be incapable of any action. They’re all crippled by the beast of a church that’s become their curse.