Tia Mitchell: When fake news goes viral, it’s no laughing matter

The cringe-inducing article popped up in my Facebook feed over the holiday weekend. “Tainted Buffet at Jacksonville Strip Club Blamed After Severe Diarrhea Incident On Stage.”

The essay linked to a website I had never heard of before. The details in headline were enough to convince me that this was a gross attempt at click bait. I rolled my eyes and scrolled past it.

Then I saw the piece on another person’s feed. And another. The final straw was a friend who tagged me in a post and pointed out the Jacksonville dateline.

If you have any doubt in your mind, let me remove it here. This viral “news article” is indeed #fakenews. Neither the Duval County Health Department nor the Florida Department of Health have records of an incident like this.

The article is light on details. It references “reports by local media” without links to back it up and only identifies the location as “a popular strip club.”

I called up one of city’s better-known strip joints just to see what the reaction was there. Wacko’s Gentleman’s Club office manager Stacey Hovey told me she learned about the article after employees texted her a link.

“They wanted to know if what they saw was true,” she said. Hovey pointed out to those workers that Wacko’s doesn’t even offer the type of food described in the article.

As I write this column, the article on BorderHerald.com had been shared on Facebook over 124,000 times and was linked in dozens if not hundreds of tweets.

Meanwhile, the piece debunking the article on fact-checking website Snopes’ has just 255 shares.

“Border Herald is one of many regional fake news sites, very few of which carry disclaimers warning readers that their content is untrustworthy,” Snopes wrote.

The signs were there even before Snopes or I started digging, but that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from commenting and sharing the article.

We could say there was no real harm in sharing an outrageous story, even if it’s totally fiction. After all, Hovey said, it didn’t even affect business at Wacko’s.

But we also know that viral fake news can have deeper, more serious effects. With so much access to “media” at our fingertips, what we chose to “like” and “share” with our “followers” matters.

I asked fake-news expert and Buzzfeed News media editor Craig Silverman why people are so easily motivated to spreading bad or false information.

“Lots of people will like a story on Facebook or comment on it or share it without actually clicking through it and reading it,” he said. “… They probably got a good chuckle out of it or they thought that it was crazy or wild.”

Silverman said Border Herald looks to be a website focused on creating the occasional viral article to drive traffic to its website to rack up advertising dollars.

I would also caution you to look out for news pieces that mince details or are purposely misleading in order to push a political agenda.

The onus is on consumers to think more deeply about the “news” they share, Silverman said.

“If everybody just took that extra pause of a few seconds of, ‘Where does this come from?’ and ‘Who is reporting this?,’ then it does slow this stuff down,” he said.

Tia Mitchell, (850) 933-1321

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