Fake accounts

Parody: (1) a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule. (2): a feeble or ridiculous imitation. (Merriam Webster). On the internet, many believe themselves parodists. However, if you take Merriam Webster’s definition as a standard, many among those many are just plain wrong. Posting fake news is not a parody. It is a lie.

This is a fake account. They declare it clearly on their profile. They are also in breach of Twitter’s impersonation policy.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to mistake this account for CNN. They misappropriate the CNN logo and use the same color scheme. This is what the actual CNN Breaking News account looks like:

First rule of thumb: check the profile of your Twitter source before you re-tweet. It only takes a click. If Twitter has verified the profile, it will display a check mark next to the name (they really should add that to every tweet, but they haven’t).  If the check mark isn’t there, the account is a fake, and might be in violation of the terms of service.

If you check so, you won’t be causing unnecessary grief to your friends by re-posting items like @CNN_BREAKING_’s hoax message about Nelson Mandela’s death. The account has since been suspended, but not before circulating “R.I.P Nelson Mandela” accompanied by a picture of Morgan Freeman (gasp!).

Mr. Mandela is in his death bed as of this writing. No one credible has reported otherwise. I won’t even comment on the accompanying picture of Morgan Freeman. SMH.

But, what about real accounts?  they can also spread false and unverified information. Here are two examples:

Gabby Giffords is NOT DEAD.
The AP account was hacked.

You are not defenseless in those situations either. You just should to wait before you tweet. While you wait, you can try to independently verify the information by triangulating. However, even then, waiting might be the best strategy. If reputable news organizations fall for the information, as they did in the NPR case, triangulation is pointless. However, false reports are usually debunked fairly quickly. The Joe Paterno death report is an example. That was debunked within 45 minutes.

Verifying information won’t kill you, and waiting won’t kill you. Please do it before you tweet.

Thank you.

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Hoax about a hoax.

Have you ever heard of Mediamass? They describe themselves as a satirical website. Their goal is to skewer contemporary media by pointing out the flaws of mass production. I have no problem with satires that target the mass media, if they are done in a way that most people would  identify the content as satire without further explanation. That’s behind the success of The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. They’re court jesters, reminding society of its flaws, one exaggeration at the time.

Unfortunately, that is not Mediamass. The problem is execution. You can’t tell it’s satire just by looking at their content because their concept is “to select the most typical, representative and recurrent articles across Gossip magazines and to make them available for all the celebrities in our database.” In praxis, that translates into a stockpile of articles that Mediamass uses for everyone. Nelson Mandela, Henry Cavill, and Brian Wilson are just a few examples. I did not post screen captions of any of these pieces, though I have them available. The reason? Mediamass doesn’t want you to “reproduce” any of their stuff, “even with permission.” Protective much?

There is a clue that these news are fake. The update link takes you back Mediamass’ “About us” page, which explains their project. I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On the one hand, once your read the description of what Mediamass is/does, then it is clearly a satire. On the other hand,  satire doesn’t need to add a disclaimer. You can recognize the satire in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because no sane person would propose  cannibalism as a remedy for poverty. The exaggeration is evident, as is the object of the satire.

When taken as a whole, the exaggeration and its object are also evident in Mediamass, once you read the “about us” section of their website and other disclaimers they have posted. In their words, “Mediamass articles in the People section are inherently fictitious – but based on real news. Thus, the theoretical possibility of each story, multiplied by thousands of celebrities in our database, makes it statistically inevitable that once in a while one of our fictionnal [sic] story fits the reality.” This is what happened when actor James Gandolfini died. On that day, Mr. Gandolfini received the Mediamass treatment, joining Mandela, Cavill, Wilson, and everyone else. The story has since been taken down, probably due to the backlash that ensued. I highly doubt that, though.  Mediamass replaced the Gandolfini piece with this article, but they also published a second piece, claiming Gandolfini is still alive.

That is standard operating procedure at Mediamass when it comes to confirmed celebrity deaths. They shift gears, and they can do so easily. After all, that’s the beauty of their collection of stock articles. They can just switch out the story.  That is how Gandolfini  received the same treatment as Pierre Mauroy, former French Prime Minister, and Jean Stapleton.

I think the best way to describe Mediamass is not satire. The site is a great example of Simulacra. Mediamass sticks very close to being plausible by design, because their brand of satire relies on the aggregation of content. They are skewering mass production, and what better way is there to mock mass production than to mass produce? However, their “network of artificial signs [is] inextricably mixed up with real elements” (Baudrillard,, 1994, p. 20), which winds up leading the reader back to “the real.” The sad part, though, is not what happens when someone seeking information stumbles upon one of Mediamass’ articles and believes it. The real problem is when media organizations do it. It’s even worse when they copy and paste material from Mediamass to debunk a hoax without acknowledging that they got it from Mediamass. Hoax debunking site Wafflesatnoon bemoaned this practice in their entry about Mediamass.

Perhaps the best lesson to take away from Mediamass is that we need to hone media literacy skills. Even then, we might fall for a hoax, or a hoax about a hoax. As for it’s ability to make society reflect upon the ills of mass produced media, that’s plausible, but only if you read the disclaimer. Otherwise, you would have a hard time figuring out what they’re trying to do.

Does that defy the purpose of the project? You tell me.

Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

https://twitter.com/markcviera/statuses/160904588176793601

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of CBSSports.com. Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning