Fake News Is Traveling Faster Than True Stories

If you believed a tweet that claimed J.Lo was going to sing Whitney Houston songs during a tribute to the late singer, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
tommy via Getty Images

Ever since social media became one of the chief methods of propagating information, we’ve had to parse out what’s real and what’s propagandistic hogwash. It’s the price we pay for the right to communicate with the world from the toilet ― there’s entire litigation about the issue.

It could just be my imagination, but it seems like the fake news is getting worse: I’ve seen entirely too much foolishness masquerading as fact, with high retweet counts and explosive comments sections poisoning Al Gore’s internet with Chernobyl levels of toxicity. Twitter, in particular, is capitalizing on the gullibility of quite a few of you lately, and it’s tough to watch.

I understand that, given the overload of information cursing our screens on a daily basis, there aren’t enough hours in the day to read and vet everything. But that overload is no excuse to get buckwild with the “share” button based on the headline of a story that you didn’t read or to immediately froth at the mouth in rage at a tweet that falls apart like wet toilet paper to even the most cursory application of scrutiny.

I also understand that some companies are elaborate with the fake content: Near the beginning of the pandemic, PornHub dropped an excellent video of a work Zoom call in which one of the attendees prepped for a little “me time” on camera, much to the horror (and amusement) of his colleagues. I was certainly fooled for about a day.

But some of the tweets and videos going viral are egregious in their spuriousness, and they make me question how the aliens will perceive us when they eventually get here. In December, a random, nobody Whitney Houston Fan Page called @certifiednippys (which no longer exists) tweeted the “news” that Jennifer Lopez shared with Time magazine that she’s doing a Houston tribute at the 2023 Grammys.

“I feel that Whitney’s songs fit my vocal range very well. I’m going to sing “I Have Nothing” & “I Will Always Love You” Lopez was “quoted” as saying in the tweet.

The tweet looked legit enough: Glossy photos of both women side by side. Time and the Grammys’ official Twitter pages tagged. Thing is, though I’ve never met J.Lo in person, I’m sure she’s gotten as far as she has in her career by having the bare minimum amount of sense necessary to never make a statement that absurd, knowing it would get that famous wagon of hers dragged to Hades and back.

Following my visceral incredulity toward the tweet, I immediately cross-referenced it with Time’s Twitter account. Nothing. I checked to see if Jenny From the Block said anything on her socials. Silence. Unquestionably fake news.

But that didn’t stop the tweet from catching fire to the point where actual credible publications ran with it. Verified accounts on Twitter with hundreds of thousands of followers (not those folks with 17 followers paying $8 a month for a blue check) retweeted it as if it were fact without suggesting that the tweet might have been fake. People who make a living in part by verifying information failed to do so with something my 5-year-old niece could’ve verified.

Fake material involving people with vast personal wealth doesn’t move me much, including the fact that many were duped into believing that Ye’s Yeezy brand started manufacturing gear incorporating swastikas. But there have been a series of fake Twitter accounts created by people with zero scruples and all the time in the world going viral with tweets that have more dire social implications.

A Twitter account that opened in January calling itself Trans Cultural Mindfulness Alliance (TCMA) tweeted a request Jan. 20 to remove Aretha Franklin’s classic “Natural Woman” from streaming services, suggesting that the song has inspired “acts of harm against transgender women” because “there is no such thing as a natural woman.”

Anyone who’s spoken to a transgender person for more than five minutes would recognize that such a request is beyond the pale and wouldn’t come from one of them. Yet that didn’t stop London’s Daily Mail and the New York Post from covering the tweet in a manner that suggested the next thing on the Trans Checklist™️ is to eat all your small children. Celebrities shared the news with some degree of anti-trans sentiment thinly veiled as righteous condemnation ― which is exactly what the tweeter wanted to happen.

Allegedly saddled with so many DMs and complaints, the TCMA account owners admitted that it is all parody and condemned the publications it claimed didn’t actually contact them for comment before publishing stories. Which, if true, doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

A couple of weeks ago, an account from “Dr. Anita B. Eatin, PhD” posted the tweet “Obese” is the N word for plus-sized people.” As of this writing, it has just shy of 20 million views and has been shared more than 16,000 times. People I respect(ed) have responded to the tweet in earnest, apparently having failed to recognize the not-so-clever name, the fake Ph.D. in “Body Positive Medicine” or the poorly photo-edited avatar.

Some argue that these fake tweets provoke necessary conversation around substantive topics, but that’s a cop-out. Candid conversations about trans people and the country’s obesity epidemic need to be had, but this isn’t the way. Calling for the “removal” of a classic, innocuous song appeals to emotion and repels people who might still be attempting to understand the trans community.

Because it’s being retweeted thousands of times, it sticks in the subconscious of people who come across it on social media while simply searching for Tony Baker cat videos and will formulate opinions without doing any of the research. Also, it’s scary how many people see Ph.D. attached to someone’s name on Twitter and assume they have mastery in every topic they tweet about. I know some Ph.D.s I wouldn’t trust to change the filter in my coffee maker.

I understand that those of us who do the journalism thing for a living have a more discerning nose for bullshit. But some of this is common sense in a jar, and folks should be ashamed of contributing to the glut of misinformation. I consider it my civic duty to do what I can to stem the tide of these terrible shares, so here are four quick points to consider before you hit that retweet button:

  • Degrees of absurdity are subjective (and often correlate with your level of gullibility). But if something feels a touch too ridiculous to be authentic, it probably is. This Twitter account from an “Ann Lesby” calls “herself” “1/8 Black neurodivergent-typical semitrans lesbian who dates men. Vegan+. Mentor: S.A. Tyre.” So when you see the tweet from this account that reads “Yes, winking is a form of sexual harassment” go viral, it’s because nobody took time to read. Don’t be that nobody.
  • If you get a news alert from a legacy publication or a generally respected digital site, you can usually take it to the bank. If it’s more lowbrow news, and People or E! News shoot it out, it’s probably true. If TMZ reports it, it’s almost certainly true because I’m convinced those guys are the Illuminati. If you see it on some poop-butt site you’ve never heard of with “.net” in the address, do your Googles to confirm before sharing. If it’s real and breaking news, it’ll likely fill up the first search page.
  • If you see a video with a caption like, “Man flew woman into town only to find out she’s pregnant” and the video contains an elaborate “fight” outside of an airport that’s perfectly filmed and feels like a skit from your college improv group, assume that clout is being chased. Act accordingly.
  • If you know it’s fake and still wish to share for whatever reason, say so out the gate. Don’t front when you get called out after the fact; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, “I knew it was fake but only shared because I thought it was funny.” You’re lying… hold this L and make it a point to do better next time. Your credibility is all you’ve got.

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