The actor who played Newman on “Seinfeld” is not dead.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is. But, you probably heard the hoax story that he was a victim of a death hoax the day before his death. Whoa….meta…
In the past year, it’s like the news is some bro out to prank each of as many times as possible. To be fair, fake news has always existed. The difference is the frequency that these stories appear and spread.
To clarify, by “fake,” I don’t mean satire the way Jon Stewart and The ONION would refer to it. I mean made-up ridiculousness meant to be taken seriously – and often published by credible news orgs.
These stories pop up with such frequency that Cracked has practically made a weekly column of it. Mashable made a gallery of the times in 2013 you were pranked.
Go ahead – blame online news and the Interwebs. I know some of you are saying “Kids these days.” A number of hoaxes live and breathe on social media sites. I’ve seen people post warnings that were debunked by Snopes five years before. I’ve seen the copy-and-paste message that has no basis in truth. I’ve seen four-year-old stories get recycled as if they were current.
But, real news organizations reported the Elan Gale hoax was reported by ABC and San Fransisco Chronicle, for example. When tornadoes spent a day terrorizing the Midwest, two fake photos got on local newscasts. And, this Fresno ABC affiliate still has a urban-legend story on its website about a Chinese man who won a lawsuit against his wife for giving him ugly children.
I have dozens of questions about hoax news stories. But, let me focus on just a few:
What qualities make a prank story “work”? Anecdotally, I think a reference to current events and cultural stereotyping play a big part. One of my favorite fake news stories is the way CNN and other broadcast news told us the birth of Prince George was announced by an official town crier. When, in reality, it was just some guy who showed up in a funny costume and read a fake proclamation.
Why do people seem not to care if it’s fake? Like some sorta Crusader for Un-Fake News, I call out people who post hoax news. In some cases people have responded: “Oh well, it’s still a good story.” Other times, I get a “lol” comment and people leave up the post. I’m planning a project this semester to better understand when we care about the truth. I suspect it will have a lot to do with our expectations of credibility and the emotional valence (we’ll care less that it’s fake when it’s a story that makes us feel good).
What is the relationship between the entry point into the news ecosystem and the types of news organizations that report on the story? I am interested in this because news diffusion appears to genuinely have changed in the past few years. To begin to explore this, I grabbed some simple data sets as Jimmy Kimmel’s latest prank was working through Twitter.
In each of these graphs, a big hub is the person who first tweeted the story. A second hub is YouTube itself. Most of these YouTube tweets are a automated message “I just watched a video on YouTube” followed by the link. I’m intrigued by the other, less obvious hubs, too. But, that’s another post – that I hope will come in the next few months.
When we find answers to my three questions, I hope media creators and users will be able to implement that knowledge in a way that cuts down on news hoaxes and increases the credibility of news.
In the meantime, let’s observe one of the first rules of journalism: If your mom tells you Bob Hope is dead, check it out.