The blame for the still-surprising fallout of the 2016 election has been spread far and wide, but if there’s one culprit that the media seems to have agreed upon, it’s the phenomenon of fake news.
Now a thriving business, where prevaricating entrepreneurs can make a handsome living monetizing cognitive bias gullibility and gaming our social media sharing impulses, the epidemic became so serious that President Obama cautioned against its dangers this month, and Facebook, history’s most brutally efficient delivery service for mistruth and nonsense, after much criticism, announced last week a series of measures meant to stem the tide of abuse. It’s been reported by the Washington Post and elsewhere — in stories themselves that have come under accusation of falsity — that foreign provocateurs may have targeted the deficiencies in our media ecosystem by introducing a raft of online hoaxes in order to sow confusion and factual discord meant to influence the election.
If there’s a silver lining, at least people seem to be waking up to the problem. Nearly every news outlet this month has dutifully addressed the issue in sobering post-election autopsies. Having seen the massive power of fake news in action, the media learned its lesson.
It lasted about a week. As a story on Friday illustrated, alleged hackers needn’t have much bothered getting out of bed, as the media is still more than equal to the task of spreading fake news on its own. This time it came in the form of a report that CNN had accidentally broadcast 30 minutes of hardcore transgender pornography on Thanksgiving night in place of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
If you were hoping to concoct a viral hoax, you couldn’t do much better than this one. It had a little bit of everything: sex, a largely disliked subject screwing up in the form of CNN, the delightfully discordant holiday angle, and ready-made punchlines riffing off the title. Add in the fact that it was a slow post-Thanksgiving Friday, with many newsrooms understaffed and weekend editors desperate for something to drive traffic, and it’s easy to see why this particular story spread so quickly to dozens of major news sites throughout the entire world in a matter of hours. But it didn’t make it any less maddening, and downright depressing, to watch as it happened in real time.
The origin of the story was a Boston woman named Rose, who tweeted about the programming mishap with a number of graphic screenshots from her account @solikearose to the popular Boston news and event account @universalhub, who then retweeted it to his 56,000 followers Friday morning. Adding veracity to Rose’s story was the fact that she had been tweeting with RCN, the cable provider in her area, about the problem, although they told her they had not received any other complaints.
800-746-4726. We have not had any reports of the programming issue you mentioned on CNN in Boston. If you're still having an
— RCN (@RCNconnects) November 25, 2016
When I saw the tweets from @solikearose, I retweeted it myself, because, let’s face it, the idea of a cable news channel accidentally showing pornography is just funny. I planned on writing up a post on the story, and began looking around for more info, but as other news reports of the story started to come in, I realized that all of them were based solely on the tweets of this one woman. Certainly, you would think, if something like this happened on a major channel in a city as big as Boston, more than one person would have seen it, right? In the meantime, I reached out to RCN and CNN and Rose for comment before reporting anything.
Most other sites were not so circumspect. The International Business Times seems to have been the first out of the gate, in a post that remained uncorrected or updated until three days later. From there, The Next Web ushered it along, in a post that was shared over 23,000 times.
Within an hour or two, the scope of the virality vector expanded widely, with The Sun and The Independent in the UK, then Variety copy-and-pasting their own version of the events. Magically, one single Twitter report was transformed into multiple “viewers” in an epidemic that may have affected hundreds of thousands of RCN subscribers in the Boston area!
Next came Maxim and Complex and the New York Post, then Mashable and Yahoo, and a helping hand from The Drudge Report, who tweeted out the Independent’s story. In one interesting twist, the local Fox affiliate in Boston was soon sharing the story of something going on in their own back yard by citing British tabloids. Minutes later Mexican, Canadian, Dutch, and Romanian sites were on board.
I catalogued all of the dubious reports in real time on Twitter, hectoring anyone who would listen, but the damage was already done. RCN and CNN being slow to respond to requests for comment, perhaps because of the holiday, didn’t help matters much. No one cared if it was true or not, despite all indications being that it wasn’t. It was simply too good to check, and the clicks were coming in. And on an individual writer level, it’s pretty simple to see why so many would post without checking. The fact that I’m a freelance journalist myself, who spent all day reporting myself out of being able to make money, illustrates why things like this so often happen. I would have been better off just writing it up and collecting a fee from any site that would have it.
The best part about this is, as a freelancer, I just spent all day reporting myself out of being able to make money. Should've just posted.
— Luke O'Neil (@lukeoneil47) November 25, 2016
The thing is, it doesn’t even matter if it happened or not. And after messaging back and forth with Rose all morning, I do, in fact, believe that this happened to her specific TV set up due to some unknown technical glitch — TiVo users like her have reported similar issues in the past. At issue wasn’t the veracity of the story itself, but rather that no one who was writing about it bothered to check if it happened before slinging it online. By later in the afternoon, Rose set her account private and stopped responding to media requests.
the cnn airing porn story is based on one tweet from a now-locked account with 76 followers, if you’re interested in how fake news spreads
— sam leo stecklow (@samstecky) November 25, 2016
Had it turned out to be true, and the accounts were vindicated, it wouldn’t have made the collective media look any better. The larger problem would have remained, and the damage was already done. Making matters worse, many decided that this was an active malicious case of fraud, accusing Rose of bad intent, without any evidence, and then reporting that as fact. She told me she has received death threats and sexual harassment since her post. Her Twitter account has since been deleted.
Spokespeople from CNN and RCN finally released responses later Friday afternoon. “Regarding the reported incident involving CNN in Boston, RCN has no evidence this occurrence took place on the CNN feed,” Jeff Carlson, SVP and General Manager of RCN Boston told me. “We have not had any other reports of this incident other than this single customer’s tweet. Our review of network operations and our call center phone logs during the last evening show no indications that this impacted any other customer than the one single customer. Only a technical review of the individual’s equipment involved could ascertain how this might have occurred. We’ve confirmed that this one customer’s account is in proper working order.”
“Despite media reports to the contrary, RCN assures us that there was no interruption of CNN’s programming in the Boston area last night,” CNN added.
And yet the story kept spreading. Australian readers woke to the story being featured on one of their largest outlets, in a post that has since been deleted without correction. La Nacion, one of Argentina’s leading publications, reported on the story, in a post that has yet to be corrected.
It’s a silly, frivolous story, to be sure, and nowhere as serious as the types of hoaxes we saw leading up to the election, many of which, cooked up by fake news farms for profit, were meant to discredit Hillary Clinton. But there are nonetheless real consequences for this type of thing. In comments directed at the Drudge Report tweet, many readers were delighting in the spectacle of CNN, itself a “fake news site” in their estimation, being brought low by the screw up. A fake news story was being used against the subject of the fake news.
Anyway, next thing you have people using an actual fake news story to discredit the subject of the story, CNN, as being fake news. pic.twitter.com/NAPA2CChNf
— Luke O'Neil (@lukeoneil47) November 25, 2016
This is the real danger of spreading news of a dubious origin. Not that we are subjected to specific falsehoods, but that it becomes such a regular occurrence, that readers no longer believe anything they read anymore. When all the news is tarnished as fake, there’s no one left to trust, besides, let’s say, an authoritative executive figure who also happens to constantly talk about how much the media lies. That’s how the president-elect of the United States can get away with himself sharing fake news — he now rivals Facebook for his reach in this matter — as he did Sunday night, when he tweeted out the baseless lie that there were millions of illegal votes in the election. That information seems to be based on a story posted on Info Wars, itself sourced from a single, extremely unreliable tweet from one random man. One tweet can do a lot of damage.
Saying “both sides do it” doesn’t come close to summarizing the issue here, but the mainstream media needs to reaffirm its commitment to doing better, especially now that we’ve seen the damage that can happen when people no longer trust it. Not just the hard news media — the Post and the New York Times and so on — but anyone who presses publish on a CMS system. Readers have proven that they’re desperate for anything that already confirms their world view. We shouldn’t let a lazy, underpaid editor at any remotely reputable news or entertainment site get a pass on further devaluing what’s supposed to be the last remaining check on a potentially disastrous president’s unfettered power. This isn’t anyone’s fault but our own. The Russians, as one current dispute theory goes, may or may not have bought us a round, but they certainly didn’t bring us to the bar.
“We all mess up every now and then — and that’s totally okay,” read the original lede on The Next Web’s post about the porn incident. “But someone is probably getting fired for this mistake.” No one is getting fired at CNN over this. Sadly, neither are any of the many dozens of writers who screwed this one up.
Luke O’Neil is a writer-at-large for Esquire who lives in Boston. You can find him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.