Our appetite for fake Ebola stories and other bunk
As if the genuine horrors of Ebola weren’t enough, a website called the National Report has taken to ginning up hoax “reports” about the disease. Over the past month, the site has published at least seven fake stories about Ebola, including one reporting that authorities quarantined the entire town of Purdon, Texas. It would be generous to describe the National Report’s treatment of current events as “satirical.” In addition to this bogus (and stupid) story, the site has published others about Texas kindergarteners getting Ebola from a Liberian foreign exchange student; the government’s plan to implant RFID chips in citizens during a pilot Ebola vaccination program; the president’s promise that Obamacare will cover the coming epidemic; and more.
The National Report, which specializes in fake news (“Graffiti Artist Banksy Arrested in London,” “Federal Government to Restrict Hunting by Setting a Minimum Age of 21“) got a boost with its Purdon story. The Verge reported that the site enjoyed a traffic spike of 2 million unique visitors in a single day last week. And it appears that a good number of readers swallowed the Purdon piece. According to tabulations by the bunk-busting site Emergent.info, the story earned about six times as many “shares” from Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ users than did the stories debunking it as a hoax on Snopes and other sites, indicating more endorsers of the tale than doubters. Joining The Verge to rip the National Report and other similar sites that engage in page-view-seeking journalistic horseplay have been the Tucson Weekly, Digiday, and Fast Company.
Fake news and bad satire venues like the National Report, critics invariably note, prey on the gullible by spreading patently false rumors that spread panic and sometimes do real harm. While we should deplore Ebola hoaxes—what sort of creep concocts a prank that ostracizes Africans and sick people?—the National Report taps into a long-standing tradition of journalistic hoaxes that go beyond the clever lampooning that is published daily in the Onion. In the 1800s, science-themed hoaxes proliferated in American newspapers as journalists advanced fantastic tales with such regularity, the Museum of Hoaxes website reports, that sometimes the more far-fetched ones that got published didn’t get much of a rise out of readers.
In 1874, the New York Herald put on Page One a completely counterfeit story about a mass escape of animals from the Central Park Zoo that riled the populace. “Armed men rushed into the streets, ready to defend their homes. Reporters were dispatched to cover the story. The police mobilized. Parents rushed to bring their children back from school,” the Museum of Hoaxes reports. And, of course, there’s the famous Moon hoax of 1835, in which the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the Moon by a famous astronomer, and the 1899 account of a Mississippi farmer who trained monkeys to pick cotton on his plantation, which was printed in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, with an earlier version appearing in print as far back as 1867.
“There are certain newspapers that prefer an interesting fake to a true story,” the trade journal Editor & Publisher stated in 1907. So pervasive were hoaxes and fakes that the New York World established “The Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play” in 1913 to “stamp out fakes and fakers,” as the scoundrels were called. In 1915, Max Sherover devoted an entire book to the topic, noting that while journalists were occasionally taken in by scammers, they were usually willing participants or the prime perpetrators. No less a journalistic hero than H.L. Mencken fabricated a Page One account of a naval battle between Japan and Russia in the Baltimore Evening Herald in 1905, publishing the “scoop” almost two weeks before authentic reports of the clash reached the West, he writes in his autobiography. Mencken also writes of having worked hard to prevent his staff from writing fakes, but added that his piece on the naval battle was “my masterpiece of all time, with the sole exception of my bogus history of the bathtub.” Ben Hecht wrote fakes for the Chicago Daily News in the ‘teens, including one about a Chicago earthquake. By 1920, fakes promoted by public relations men in service of their clients became so widespread that New York City District Attorney Edward Swann considered prosecuting flacks who promoted fakes into print.
“Pulling off a good fake offered other satisfactions to the reporter,” writes press scholar Andie Tucher in her essay “The True, the False, and the ‘Not Exactly Lying,'” which compiles a tasty banquet of fake stories from the old days. Fakes tended to delight and attract readers, boost circulation and revenues, and produce journalistic results that the honest competition couldn’t match. “They kept public excitement boiling even during lulls in the action,” she continues. Even fake photographs joined the journalistic mix until rising professional standards nixed phony stories from the better outlets, only to reappear when a rogue like Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, or Jay Forman outwitted their editors to dress fiction in the clothing of fact.
Inheriting the disgraced tradition of the prank-hoax-fake story, the National Report can still attract readers because our appetite for news can never be fully sated by the truth. In his new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, Kembrew McLeod demonstrates that sometimes pranksters, working as culture jammers, provoke worthy debates “by sowing skepticism” about power. (The now-defunct tabloid Weekly World News performed this function with its fictional accounts of the supernatural dressed up as real news. But don’t place the modern National Enquirer in the hoax bag. Its stories are in the main pretty accurate).
People buy into pranks and hoaxes, McLeod writes, “when they resonate with their own deeply entrenched worldviews.” In the case of Ebola, who among us really has a sure grip on the dangers the disease poses for the American population? Surely not President Barack Obama, who keeps rewriting his anti-hysterical advice to the public. And surely not the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose Ebola revisions have revealed his limitations.
In drawing a big audience for its witless Ebola stories, the National Report reaffirms history’s verdict that nothing entices readers more than a good, bladder-emptying scare. Stephen King knows this, as do the horror film directors of Hollywood. They also know that in order to be truly frightening, the new scare must surpass the previous scares, which we have already normalized, and reach a level of fear we’ve not yet experienced. We never feel so alive as when we can convince ourselves that death—a painful, fluid-drenched death—is just a step away.
The National Report also performs an unintentional public service by acquainting us with the vast ignorance of the public. The National Report isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom. Feel free to quarantine.
I pinched that “vast ignorance of the public” idea from this Oscar Wilde quotation: “By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, [journalism] keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” Send your favorite Wildeisms to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed both causes and cures Ebola. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A volunteer wearing a protective suit walks in a ‘high risk’ zone during an Ebola training session held by Germany’s Red Cross in Wuerzburg October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle