Fake News in the Wild


A thread for fake news that you personally have been able to identify. Not based on your personal speculation, but based on real lack of source documents, materials, or records, or where those records and materials do not say what the news sources purports that they say. Recently I’ve been able to find that with a little digging and some basic research skills, I’ve been able to find that it can be fairly easy to identify when a story is just a big nothingburger.

So I came across an old news story as an accidental aside to some research I was going on animal behavior.It was a story about Iran arresting squirrels on suspicion of nuclear espionage. It was widely (albeit not exhaustively) reported in the news, but something about it seemed off to me and tingled my spidey-sense, so I dug into it. I’m not going to rehash my whole odyssey here simply because I don’t think people want to read my detailed explanation, but the story doesn’t have anything to back it up. It sort of rests on nothing. If you follow the sources, you don’t get dead links, but a set of circular references (news sources pointing to each other) with the original source being ultimately unclear, though the best possible candidate for the original source has no record of this event. There are even some signs that point to this not being more than a rumor. Now, I might be wrong about this and the Iranians really did arrest a bunch of squirrels because you can always count on humans to be ridiculous, in which case I’d be happy to have the truth in my lap. But, even though I had to apply a little bit of linguistic knowledge that not everyone has, I do not speak Farsi, and it was relatively easy to figure out that there was nothing to this… so why didn’t NPR or other news outlets figure this out?

My theory? The chuckle value of the story overrode people’s professionalism in a way that actually betrays a bias. One of the issues raised by people who study nuclear proliferation such as experts over at Arms Control Wonk (which also uncritically reported this story, to my surprise), are latent prejudices about the intellects of the Other. There is a strong tendency to underestimate “non-sophisticated” culture’s ability to construct and deploy weapons (even though nuclear weapons are a 1940s technology made out of stuff that comes out of the ground and which predates effective rocket-propelled missiles). So the Russians assessed that the Chinese were nowhere near developing a nuke until they detonated one, and the Americans make the same mistake in assessing North Korea’s program all the time. This story seems to have only fed Americans more of their daily diet of not thinking at all of Iran as a country with reasonable people in it.


I’ve noticed a few of these types of stories on RT.


The flip-side is that a lot of (not all) stories do this with Russian meddling: Very little in the way of evidence fitting the conclusion of the article, with reader implication doing the heavy lifting.